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Tips and Strategies for Learning to Speak Mandarin Chinese
Updated: 3 hours 34 min ago

Linguistic Complaining

Mon, 07/12/2010 - 06:43

Learning a foreign language can be very rewarding. But it can also be very frustrating. Chinese sometimes seems to be unfairly frustrating in many ways.

I’ve been thinking about outlets for that frustration and I’ve decided that the one I’m most prone to is complaining about the Chinese language. I’ve found the following to be true about my linguistic complaining:

  1. I usually complain to other foreigners (especially those who are also trying to learn Chinese).
  2. I don’t mind complaining in front of Chinese people.
  3. I almost always complain about unchangeable, ingrained parts of the language (like the fact that there are tones).
  4. I use the word “they” when complaining about the language to mean “Chinese people” or “speakers of Chinese.”
  5. I prepare my complaints ahead of time so that when I meet a sympathetic listener I’m ready.
  6. It feels good to complain.

However, despite the temporary good feelings I may get from venting, I’ve come to believe that linguistic complaining is overall a very destructive activity. This may come as a surprise since I’ve occasionally even used this blog for some ranting. Let’s just say I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.

But before I explain why I feel I’ve got a problem and I’m trying to quit, let me give some examples of the type of complaining I’m most prone to so it’ll be easier to imagine my plight.

Types of Linguistic Complaining

1. Pronunciation

Probably the most common category for me is the tones. I find it unfair that I’ve got to learn two things for each word (the word itself and the tone with which to say it). I also find it strange that Chinese people can understand the words of songs (which follow the “tones” of the melody rather than the tones the dictionary gives for each word) but can’t understand the words I’m saying with the wrong tones. I’ve often felt that a fruit vendor or someone “misunderstood me on purpose and knew full well what I meant!”

2. Vocabulary

How do you say something in Chinese? Well there might be a whole lot of words for it and every dictionary you look in might give you a different word. I’ve often been frustrated that “They have so many words for the same thing!” in Chinese. There are also some divergent concepts where Chinese has two or more different words for something we’ve only got one word for (for example “thin” and “thick” are different in Chinese depending on the shape of the object).

3. Listening

One of the side effects of only having 409-ish syllables in Chinese plus the 5 tones is that a whole lot of words sound the same. This makes listening especially difficult. I’ve found myself getting angry when a student asked me in class (without any context), for example: “How do you say shíwù in English?” My brain immediately starts pumping out permutations of all the meanings those syllables could have with those tones (here are the four in the dictionary) and I have no way of knowing which one the student meant without resorting to hanzi or some sort of clarifying discussion.

4. Lack of Practice Partners

Over my five years in China, it’s been a real “feast or famine” regarding Chinese language practice partners. Fact is: you can’t learn Chinese (well, most people can’t) unless there’s someone who’s willing to talk to you in Chinese. During times when I’ve been isolated or unable to find people who don’t want to talk to me just to improve their English, I’ve often said to myself, “They’re so selfish! I’m trying to learn THEIR language and no one’s helping me!”

Effects of Complaining

The above examples are meant to help you identify whether you too are prone to linguistic complaining. If you are, it’s of course up to you also to decide if you think it’s a good use of your energy. For me, personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that no good comes of the type of complaining I’ve described.

1. It Torpedoes My Motivation

When I complain about these things, all of which are out of my control to change, I find that a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness quickly grows. I start thinking, “It’s not getting better, and I’ve already been trying this long. Maybe I’ve done about as much as I can with this language.”

2. It Torpedoes My Relationships with Chinese Friends

Imagine for a moment I have my own children. I don’t want my neighbor to come over and list all the bad things my kids do. I know my kids aren’t perfect, but I’m stuck with them. And there are a lot of good things they do too.

Well, as polite as our Chinese friends may be when listening to rants against their language, they would probably rather talk about something else. It’s out of their control as much as it is out of mine. But I’ve actually (shockingly!) found myself blaming individual Chinese friends of mine for “this language” and its perceived flaws. It really put a damper on our relationship. I’ve often wondered if that’s one contributing factor to those dry spells when I didn’t have Chinese friends who wanted to speak Chinese with me.

I’m amazed at how emotional I can get over these issues. Some people get angry about sports teams. I’ve gotten angry about measure words. No one wants to be around angry people on a prolonged basis.

3. It Makes Me Proud

If I could sum up the problem with linguistic complaining in one sentence it would be:

“When I complain, I feel powerful and it gives me an artificially inflated sense of who I am in this country and the whole universe for that matter.”

When I complain about something as ancient and complex as the Chinese language, I’m setting myself up as a sort of “Linguistic God.” I’m actually thinking thoughts like, “If I’d created the language I would have done things very, VERY differently.” As if I can even take credit for anything in my own language!

Zěnme Bàn? 怎么办?

Now that I’ve identified the fact that I’m a linguistic complainer and that it’s a problem for me, the issue becomes how to avoid slipping back into those tendencies to complain. As with all complaining, the root is actually thinking.

The key, for me, is to still feel free to think honestly about the language and the language-learning process, without being negative. Many of the solutions I’ve come up with have come about by thinking and speaking honestly about difficulties I’ve encountered.

But problems arise when I start thinking negatively about things I have no control over (for example the fact that the language has tones at all).

For example, I’ve found I need to avoid thoughts in the following general categories:

  • “Chinese is a bad language.”
  • “English (or some other language) is better because of ____.”
  • “If I were trying to learn a different language I wouldn’t be feeling this way.”

Such thoughts put the blame for how I’m feeling on the language. In fact, I’m in charge of my own emotional response to the language and the thoughts I allow myself to entertain. Besides, no one is forcing me to continue attempting to learn the language or even stay in China for that matter.

I’m now convinced that, regardless of the difficulties inherent in learning Chinese (and there are many), complaining about them is of no benefit to me (or anyone) and only leaves me angry or discouraged. Complaining makes me feeling powerful and it may even be entertaining to listen to. But I’ve found that the long-term costs outweigh the temporary benefits.

Thus ends the confession of a linguistic complainer.

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The Great China Quest

Sun, 07/11/2010 - 02:29

I usually don’t blog about personal stuff, but I thought my summer plan might be of general interest, especially since I’m hoping a new book will come out of it.

My friend Adrian (of Jiaozi and Panda fame) and I are going to be travelling around China for 30 days, attempting scavenger-hunt-like challenges for something we are calling (perhaps a bit presumptuously):

The Great China Quest

If you’re interested in what we’re planning (and not planning) to do, or in following our travels, there’s a whole new website dedicated to the trip complete with a blog of its own.

If you’d like to receive an occasional email whenever we post something related to the trip (we’ll be using Internet cafes along the way to post updates), you can subscribe below.

The Great China Quest Email Updates:

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Hey, That’s Cheating! OK?

Tue, 07/06/2010 - 01:44

When my brother was about six years old, I watched him play battleship against my father (play free here–WARNING: turn down sound first). There was a break in the action when my dad had to answer the phone, during which I left the room as well. When I came back in, they were playing again and my brother had miraculously begun annihilating my dad’s fleet with remarkable precision bombing. It was clear that he had simply looked at my dad’s game board while he was on the phone (as any child in his position would have) and memorized the position of all the ships (as I’m not sure any child could).

My father, of course, figured this out too. So then, much to my brother’s surprise, instead of hearing “Hit, and you’ve sunk my battle ship” after each shot, he was hearing my father say, “Miss!”

I stayed (uncharacteristically) quiet just to watch the action unfold naturally. At one point I actually heard my brother mutter to himself, “Hmm…I can’t remember where that one is.”

My father heard it too and replied, “That’s because I just moved all my ships.”

My brother, incensed, shouted, “Hey, that’s cheating!”

What’s That Got to Do with Chinese?

I would like to submit that one possible Chinese translation for my brother’s final shout could be:

Zuòbì, hǎo bù hǎo! 作弊, 好不好!
Hey, that’s cheating!

I’ve been trying to figure out how to translate a special use of hǎo bù hǎo  好不好. I propose that it could be translated as:

…hǎo bù hǎo! …好不好!
Hey that’s…!

It’s strange because hǎo bù hǎo 好不好 is usually a question meaning “ok?” or “Would that be ok?” But I recently heard it used in two situations that lead me believe it’s more of a “Hey!” sort of exclamation.

Situation 1

My students were all preparing for an oral English exam in another class in which they would have to answer the question: “Are women and men equal?” or something like that. Most of the students had already taken the test, but one student was ill or something and was going to take it right after my class. She asked me if I could tell her my opinion. When another student heard her ask me, she obviously thought it wasn’t fair for the foreign teacher to help only one student when all the others had taken it on their own. She shouted:

Zuòbì, hǎo bù hǎo! 作弊, 好不好!

Now, I’m sure she didn’t mean:

How about you cheat, ok?

Even though that’s what it sounded like at first.

Situation 2

During a little “Chinese corner” practice group, an American colleague of mine asked the Chinese native speaker in the group how to say something in Chinese (I can’t remember what). She told him but he kept proposing an alternative word, insisting that it was right. She’d never heard it. Finally, he said, “Well, when I was in Sichuan they always said that.”

She slapped a hand on the table and said:

Nà shì Sìchuan huà, hǎo bù hǎo! 那是四川话, 好不好!

We then discussed this little hǎo bù hǎo 好不好 for quite a while and I think it really meant:

Hey, that’s Sichuanese!

The underlying message being: “(So why are you asking me about that? You know full well that I’m not from Sichuan!)”

Anyone else heard this anywhere? Any alternative translations that I should consider?

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Boy Left Girl Right

Sat, 06/19/2010 - 07:39

The other day I saw a few students taking a photo together and as they were arranging themselves the girl holding the camera shouted:

“Nán zuǒ nǚ yòu” 男左女右 [boy left girl right]

This seems to be a common/traditional way of arranging a boy and a girl for a picture or on stage hosting an event, etc. Also, while it’s not 100% consistent, I started looking at xǐ shǒu jiān 洗手间 arrangement and noticed that most follow the same pattern.

I asked my students what the origin of this little phrase is. One student said that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the doctor would take the pulse (bǎ mài 把脉, for you Word Hogs) of men using the patient’s left wrist and use the right wrist of a woman patient.

Also, apparently a married man puts his wedding ring (if he has one) on his left hand’s ring finger and a woman on her right hand’s ring finger.

Has anyone else:

1) Heard this phrase?

2) Noticed it’s usage beyond photos,  toilets, and wedding rings?

3) Learned the origin of where this came from?

If so, please enlighten us (or at least me).

(from left to right) CCTV’s Zhū Jūn 朱军 and Dǒng Qīng 董卿

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Proverb Assistance: Enemy’s Enemy

Sat, 06/19/2010 - 02:34

This tiny article at Wikipedia gives the Chinese credit for the proverb:

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

as well as:

“It is good to strike the serpent’s head with your enemy’s hand.”

But there are no references for either. I’d like to learn the Chinese for one or both of those.

So can anyone confirm that those are actually Chinese idioms by giving us the hanzi for either?

On a more general note, this little wèntí 问题 clearly shows one the of the gaps in the Chinese-learning resources market: a complete and easily searchable proverb and idiom dictionary for Chinese and English. Does anyone have a favorite they’d like to recommend?

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2 New Songs: Rich Girl, Tuífèi 颓废

Sun, 06/13/2010 - 05:57

I’m delighted to announce that my sister Marie has just finished recording two Mandarin songs here in my little studio.

1. Rich Girl

I wrote the song with our college’s hip hop dance team in mind (I haven’t heard from them whether they like the song or not yet). I invented a character (I imagined a Shànghǎi rén 上海人 for some reason) and recorded the “voice” of the ATM here on campus to mix in.

Download the MP3


2. Tuífèi 颓废

Kicking off our new Chinese cover song album, Marie played the piano and recorded all of her own vocals while I was in class. I must say, I like this piano sans-harmonica version even more than the original recording by Xián Zǐ 弦子, but then again, I’m piānxīn 偏心.

Download the MP3


Any help with the translation of Tuífèi 颓废 (including the title) would be appreciated. I’m really not sure I’ve captured the ethos of the song correctly.

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Wanted: Cantonese Materials For Foreigners Who Already Know Mandarin

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 14:18

I am not even close to committing to trying to think about beginning to learn Cantonese. It’s Mandarin all the way for me (for now). But the fact is: I’m finishing my 3rd year in Cantonese Land (where I happily use Mandarin, by the way) and I really should at least know about the báihuà 白话 here. (Oh! The peer pressure!)

According to this thread at Sinoglot, it’ll be easier for me to learn Cantonese (if I ever decided to) by comparing it to the Mandarin that I already know than it would be for someone starting from scratch (seems obvious, but it’s complicated, apparently). I won’t be able to ignore the Mandarin I already know so I’ll be comparing no matter what happens.

What I’d really like to find is some materials that outline:

1) The different Romanization systems of Cantonese (and which one I should learn)

2) The tones (including how many there are: a shockingly difficult question for any of these native speakers to answer).

3) The phonemes

4) Anything else that would be helpful in getting the “discount” based on the Mandarin I already know.

I realize the target market for this resource is (can it be true?) even smaller than the target market for my own book, but I was wondering if these things exist anywhere (outside of the comments section of that thread, of course).

Anyone (including you in that thread) have any ideas?

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Up North Chant

Tue, 06/01/2010 - 02:17

In honor of Értóng Jié 儿童节, this is the first post in a series designed to bring us foreigners up to the level of Chinese elementary school children (not including their studies of hanzi, but if you want that, see Randy Alexander’s project).

For those of us who have mild dyslexia, here’s a little kǒujué 口诀 to help you keep the compass points straight:

[See original post to listen to audio]

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

Shàng Běi, Xià Nán, Zuǒ Xī, Yòu Dōng
上北, 下南, 左西, 右东


Up North, Down South, Left West, Right East

Of course, if you have no idea where left and right are it’s not going to be that useful.

Anyone else know any children’s chants for remembering things? Please share.

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My One Friend

Thu, 05/27/2010 - 23:52

Here’s a little trip down grammar lane, trying to get to the bottom of how the English word “one” can be translated so many different ways in Chinese.

It might surprise you how the Chinese say:

1. “one of my friends”

My first impulse was, of course, a sort of word-for-word translation:

yí gè wǒ de péngyou *WRONG*

This is better:

1. wǒ de yí gè péngyou 我的一个朋友

Which is literally “My one friend.”

So what if you want to say:

2. “He’s my one friend” OR “He’s my only friend”

Here’s where you employ a new word (immortalized in Wáng Lìhóng’s 王力宏 famous song):

2. Tā shì wǒ wéiyī de péngyou. 他是我唯一的朋友.

If you still want to use the number and measure word, you could also say:

2. Wǒ zhǐyǒu tā yí gè péngyou 我只有他一个朋友

So now what about if I want to say:

3. “He’s one of my best students.”

There are three common ways to translate that (click the hanzi for a literal breakdown of what each word means):

3. Tā shì wǒ zuì hǎo xuéshēng zhīyī. 他是我最好学生之一.
Tā shì wǒ zuì hǎo xuéshēng lǐmiàn de yí gè. 他是我最好学生里面的一个.
Tā shì wǒ zuì hǎo xuéshēng (zhī)zhōng de yí gè. 他是我最好学生(之)中的一个.

That’s the same grammar you would use if you wanted to say:

4. “I need one of you to help me.”

Except, my informant said the “zhīyī” 之一 construction would sound weird here, which only leaves:

4. Wǒ xūyào nǐmen lǐmiàn de yí gè lái bāng wǒ. 我需要你们里面的一个来帮我.
Wǒ xūyào nǐmen (zhī)zhōng de yí gè lái bāng wǒ. 我需要你们(之)中的一个来帮我.

And now the grand finale:

5. He’s one of the only foreign teachers who can speak Chinese.

That “one of the only who can” I was told is best translated as “among the minority who can.” For example, one possible translation would be:

5. Tā shì shǎoshù huì shuō zhōngwén de wàijiào zhōng de yí gè 他是少数会说中文的外教中的一个.

What a complex sentence, eh? Anyone know of any other ways to say that? Please help.

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Bù le 不了: So Simple, So Unknown to Foreigners

Thu, 05/06/2010 - 08:11

I’m not really sure why most of us laowai don’t know about this little phrase. It’s certainly not because it’s too complicated. Maybe it’s just so short we don’t realize we’ve heard it. I’ve never seen any books or dictionaries that explain it, so I’ll try:

Bù le 不了 = No thanks (I don’t want to do something)

It’s not really “no thanks,” because there’s no xiè  in there, but it does mean “no” and I get the feeling it’s used in situations where we would say “no thanks.”

Apparently, it’s best used between friends or someone you can speak informally with rather than shop owners or your boss. Here are the two situations in which I’ve heard it used:

1. A friend on her balcony waving to a friend walking past:

A: Nǐ yào bú yào shàng lái hē chá? 你要不要上来喝茶?
Do you want to come up and have some tea?

B: Bù le. Wǒ huí qù le.  不了. 我回去了.
No thanks. I’m going home.

As I understand it, in this situation “bù le” 不了 is short for “bú yòng le” 不用了 meaning “that’s not necessary.” But that explanation doesn’t really help me because if I were inviting you for tea, I wouldn’t assume it was necessary. Again, that’s why I translate it as “no thanks.”

2. Two friends (A and B) chatting at a sidewalk cafe. A third friend (C) walks past.

A: Nǐ hǎo! Gēn wǒmen yìqǐ chīfàn ba. 你好!跟我们一起吃饭吧.
Hi! Eat with us.

C:  Bù le. Wǒ yǐjīng chī le. 不了. 我已经吃了.
No thanks. I already ate.

Notice in both situations they are friends. Also notice that “bù le” 不了 is immediately followed by a jièkǒu 借口 of some sort.

Does anyone else have some insight into this little nugget? Please enlighten us.

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Looking Forward to Your Love

Mon, 05/03/2010 - 23:44

Here’s an up-tempo, happy pop song from the singer of such classics as “In A Thousand Years” and “Back to Back Hug” (translations coming someday…maybe). I’ve actually seen Lín Jùnjié 林俊杰 perform live and he was great (assuming he was really singing what I was hearing).

Here’s my humble attempt at a translation (requires Adobe Reader):

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

For the MP3, click here (not my link).  Or if that link is broken and you’re not afraid of hanzi, do a Baidu search.

In addition to the ever-popular slipping in of a few English words, this song follows the standard structure for Chinese pop songs:

  • Verse 1
  • Pre Chorus
  • Chorus
  • Pre Chorus
  • Chorus

This song also has the amazing Chinese “A to ∞” rhyme scheme for most of the song.


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Wanted: Convert Tone Numbers in Microsoft Word

Wed, 03/24/2010 - 23:12

What I’ve got is a document in Microsoft Word that contains Pinyin words with tone numbers, for example:

Hi everyone.
da4jia1 hao3.

So I want to highlight the WHOLE DOCUMENT, click a button, and see this:

Hi everyone.
dàjiā hǎo.

In other words, it ignores everything without a number, and converts everything with a number to pinyin tones (I know that could convert things I don’t want converted but I’m willing to deal with that).

I’ve already got (as seen in the sidebar under Links > Resources – Pinyin):

Anyone have any suggestions?

By the way, has anyone done an analysis of the Zhonglish in this clip yet? If so, great! That’ll save me the trouble. If not, please do! I’d rather read it than write it.

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Text Message Greetings for Chinese New Year

Sat, 02/13/2010 - 05:38

We’re only a few hours away from the annual Chinese text-message switchboard overload. Just in case you want to contribute your own duǎnxìn 短信 to the 19 billion that will be sent tonight, here are some common options with rough English translations (click on the hanzi for a literal breakdown of what each character means).

and nín can be interchanged depending how formal you want to be. And you may or may not need a”zhù nǐ/nín” 祝你/ (“wishing you”) before each of these.

Special thanks to Sheila at for helping fill out this list.

Year of the Tiger Messages

zhù nǐ/nín 祝你/… = Wishing you…

  1. hǔ nián kuàilè 虎年快乐 = Happy Year of the Tiger
  2. hǔ nián jíxiáng 虎年吉祥 = Have a lucky Year of the Tiger
  3. hǔ nián xíng dà yùn 虎年行大运 = May the Year of the Tiger bring you great luck
  4. xīhǔ zhù nín hǔ nián wàng 犀虎祝您虎年旺 = May the rhinoceros-tiger bring you a prosperous Year of the Tiger*
Standard New Year’s Greetings
  1. dà jí dà lì 大吉大利 = Good luck and good profit (see also New Year’s puns)
  2. gōnghè xīnxǐ 恭贺新喜 = Happy New Year
  3. gōngxǐ fācái 恭喜发财 = get rich
  4. guò nián hǎo 过年好 = Happy New Year
  5. jiā hé wàn shì xīng 家和万事兴 = If the family lives in harmony, all affairs will prosper
  6. niánnián gāoshēng 年年高升 = get a promotion every year
  7. shēntǐ jiànkāng 身体健康 = have good health
  8. shìshì rúyì 事事如意 = everything go according to your wishes
  9. shìshì shùnlì 事事順利 = everything go smoothly
  10. wànshì rúyì 万事如意 = all your wishes come true
  11. xīnnián kuàilè 新年快乐 = Happy New Year
  12. xīn xiǎng shì chéng = wishes come true
  13. xiàokǒu chángkāi 笑口常开 = always smile
Heart Marathon

Sheila also gave me this as an example of a longer message friends might send to each other. This one features the character for “heart” at the end of every line:

hǔ nián zhùyuàn nín: gōngzuò shūxīn, xīnshuǐ héxīn, bèiwō nuǎnxīn, péngyou zhīxīn, àirén tóngxīn, yíqiè shùnxīn, yǒngyuǎn kāixīn, shìshì chènxīn

Here’s the breakdown:

hǔ nián zhùyuàn nín 虎年祝愿您… = this Year of the Tiger I wish you…

Anyone else know any other standard New Year’s greetings we can send as text messages? Do share.

*Apparently there are five kinds of tigers in traditional Chinese lore. Here’s Sheila’s explanation:


I think I’ll save a more in-depth look at that (and pinyin transcription) for a later post, unless someone else would like to explicate that and give me the link. That would be even better!

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Job Opening: Teach Chinese to a Panda

Tue, 02/09/2010 - 09:16

I just saw this article about Měilán’s (美兰) return to China and had to mention it. If you’ve got a good command of Chinese and English, no infectious diseases, and a bachelor’s degree or higher, you might want to consider applying.

Although, I guess you’d have to be in Chengdu and know some Sìchuān huà 四川话:

“[The panda] will be taught Chinese with a Sichuan dialect because people here all speak Sichuan dialect…For example, she will be taught the phrases for going back to the cage or coming out from the dormitory.”

I couldn’t find the sina site that was mentioned but I did find this article that gives you the phone number to call if you want to apply.

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Nǐ hǎo 你好: A Very Fake Greeting

Mon, 02/08/2010 - 00:26

I was waiting for my turn at the ping pong table the other night, when an older teacher started walking past me. I’d seen him several times before and even played ping pong with him once.

“Nǐ hǎo 你好,” I said.

He stopped his walk and said, in all sincerity that most people don’t say “nǐ hǎo” 你好 as a greeting. It just sounds too fake (tài jiǎ de 太假的).

I was very startled and asked him to please tell me what I should say. He then went into how good friends will say, “Chīfàn le ma?” 吃饭了吗? or one of the many variations on the question and there are different responses depending on whether or not you’ve just eaten.

This might have been a good little prank, but he was perfectly serious. He was even explaining it to one of his Chinese colleagues who was standing there too (as if he didn’t know!). The colleague, in all earnestness, was agreeing and adding little tid bits of his own to the advice.

I listened very politely and then it ended and they left.

I was surprised to hear all this because:

A. I already know all about “Chī le ma?” 吃了吗? and all the other ”eat-n-greet” options around here. I was shocked that these teachers thought I could understand all the other vocabulary they were using yet, somehow, managed to miss one of the most basic greetings.

B. I thought “Nǐ hǎo” 你好 was perfectly friendly. I had no idea it sounded so “fake.” I think he might have meant it was too formal and not casual enough for good friends.

C. I don’t consider him a good friend. He’s an older teacher who I’ve only spoken with a few times, and usually the conversations have left me (like this one) with an unpleasant wèidào 味道 in my kǒu .

So the real questions for any of those loyal few who still tune in to this blog are:

1. Is there any truth in what this man says?

2. Should I now be afraid to say “Nǐ hǎo” 你好 at the risk of sounding fake?

I don’t know why, I  just prefer not to ask people if they’ve eaten as a greeting. But I’d be willing to try if the overwhelming number of comments (i.e. more than zero) tell me I should.

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Free Gift from

Thu, 12/24/2009 - 18:14

Shèngdàn kuàilè 圣诞快乐 everyone! (Such a strident seasonal greeting–it just doesn’t sound as merry in Chinese.) Before I get back to wrapping my gifts, I thought I’d mention an actual free gift (as opposed to this) available to everyone for the next week.

Apparently, is doing a Christmas special offering unlimited Chinese lessons (voice chats with Chinese native speakers) until the end of this year (2009). But here’s the kicker:

After I wrote a review of, they hired me to do some consulting for them. So, as a thank you to you (the inexplicably loyal readers of this blog), they just informed me that anyone who mentions the name of this blog will receive a free $1 in your account, which is the minimum required to take advantage of the Christmas special. So that means that anyone who reads this little post can actually have totally free Chinese lessons (or as I prefer to think of it: informant Q&A time) for the next week.

If you decide you’d like to give it a try, just remember to type “Laowai Chinese” as the answer to “Where did you hear about us?” when you create your account. That’s apparently the magic mìmǎ 密码.

Enjoy shouting holiday cheer to everyone you meet (four 4th tones in a row, sheesh!).

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Free Gifts

Sat, 12/19/2009 - 02:06

Alright, pretend when you read the upcoming pinyin you’re really listening to a shopkeeper in Guangzhou.

I was shopping for Shèngdàn lǐwù 圣诞礼物 in a big shopping mall in Guangzhou. I found a little silk scarf I was considering and the shopkeeper came over to convince me it was exactly what I wanted. I explained (just for the chance to speak Chinese) that I was looking for Christmas presents and especially one for my mom. She and her shopkeeper friend were thrilled to learn that and started pointing at other things in the shop. One picked up a decorative fan and said (ready for the imaginary listening practice?):

Zhè ge sòng nǐ hěn hǎo.

I was shocked. I transcribed it in my head to be these characters:

这个送你很好 = I’ll give you this for free, that’s good.

I thought, “Really?! You’d just give this to me. Just because I’m shopping for Christmas presents? It looks kind of expensive though. I mean, it’s a really fancy fan.”

So I clarified:

Zhège sòng gěi wǒ ma?
You’re giving this to me for free?

I’ve never heard so many “bù-s” in such a short time span, and coming from such smiling faces as one said:

Bú shì “sòng nǐ,” shì “sòng nǐ.”

and she made some hanzi characters on her hand.

Have you figured out the problem yet?

Thankfully, I’ve spent a lot of time down here in the South teaching Chinese students English majors, many of whom have the same pronunciation problem. I sorted it all out by saying:

O! Nǐ de yìsi shì “sòng lǐ”–sòng lǐwù de lǐ–bú shì “sòng nǐ.”
Oh! You mean “to give as a gift”–the “li” of gift–not “to give you for free.”

The delight in the room could have lit all the Christmas trees in Tiānhé 天河!

The old “n/l” switcheroo is just one of the many widespread pronunciation problems we have to deal with in the South, and seems to be especially prevalent in Guangdong. The sounds are allophones in many fāngyán 方言 (including, apparently Cantonese) and so this sort of thing happens all the time. Many times you can figure out what it was supposed to be (“Nǐ qù lǎlǐ?”). This was just one of those times when both variations were possible and only one could be true.

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Tennis Players and Drummers

Wed, 12/16/2009 - 05:51

As I’m sure my English-speaking readers would agree, the agent marker “-er” is tough for Chinese learners. We use it all the time in English (3 times in the previous sentence) but it’s not so readily available in Chinese.

Example 1: Tennis Player

Imagine I see a girl walking down the street with a tennis racket in her hand. I want to dāshàn 搭讪 (not to be confused with you-know-who). In English, I’d say something like:

“Nice racket you’ve got there. So, are you a tennis player?”

How would we translate that second sentence into Chinese? Well, looking at “reporter” (jìzhě 记者) and “scholar” (xuézhě 学者) we see that you just add “-zhě” to the end of a verb and you’ve suddenly got a noun meaning “someone who VERBs.” Unfortunately, even though the grammar is technically correct for a literal translation, the word dǎzhě 打者 doesn’t exist, so this is impossible:

Nǐ shì wǎngqiú dǎzhě ma? 你是网球打者? = Are you a tennis player? [you are tennis play-er {p}]

So what should we say? The other agent markers are out because you can’t add them to “dǎ” either:

  • -jiā = -er (like in “huàjiā” 画家 = painter)
  • -yuán = -er (like in “yǎnyuán” 演员 = actor / performer)

These words do not exist is Chinese:

Nǐ shì wǎngqiú dǎjiā ma? 你是网球打家?
Nǐ shì wǎngqiú dǎyuán ma? 你是网球打员?

You could add yuán to “tennis,” but that sounds too professional:

Nǐ shì wǎngqiúyuán ma? 你是网球员吗? = Are you a (professional) tennis player?

That’s not really my question. I just want to know if she plays tennis.

So I suggested to my informants the trusty “shì…de” construction:

Nǐ shì dǎ wǎngqiú de ma? 你是打网球的吗? = Are you a tennis player? [you are play tennis {p} {p}]

They said it’s ok, but sounds strange. It turns out what most Chinese people would say is simply:

Nǐ huì dǎ wǎngqiú ma? 你会打网球吗? = Do you know how to play tennis?

OR better yet:

Nǐ jīngcháng dǎ wǎngqiú ma? 你经常打网球吗? = Do you often play tennis?

I know, I know, I know. We don’t want to talk about how often she plays, but that’s the way Chinese people would ask our original question, “Are you a tennis player?” or “Do you play tennis?” Apparently, adding the “jīngcháng” 经常 in there is better (or at least more dìdao 地道) than just saying: “Nǐ dǎ wǎngqiú ma?” 你打网球吗?

Lesson 1 = If you can leave out the agent marker and just ask a simple “Do you often VERB?” question, that’s probably best.

Example 2: Drummer

But sometimes that’s really not what I want to know. Imagine I’m at a rock show and I meet a band of 4 guys before their set. I want to know who is the drummer in the band. Now, I could just ask each of them:

Nǐ huì dǎ gǔ ma? 你会打鼓吗? = Do you know how to play the drums?

But there’s always that chance, especially because everyone knows how to hit stuff, that they’ll ALL say, “Yes.” They might even hit them pretty often, which renders the “jīngcháng” 经常 construction useless. I really just want to ask about the drummer! Enter: “hand.”

Nǐ shì gǔshǒu ma? 你是鼓手吗? = Are you the drummer? [you are drum-hand {p}]

“Hand” works as the agent marker for most (all?) instrumentalists (jítāshǒu 吉他手 = guitarist) and in some other situations as well:

  • xuǎnshǒu 选手 = competitor / contestant [choose hand]
  • shuǐshǒu 水手 = sailor [water hand]
  • qiāngshǒu 枪手 = gunner [gun hand]
  • duìshǒu 对手 = opponent [opposite hand]

I’m always looking for some sort of guīlǜ 规律 to guide me when thinking about these things and here’s what I’ve got so far (although it’s not even close to perfect):

  1. If it’s the formal name of an actual job (reporter, scholar, actor, tennis player, etc.) look for some sort of formal word that may use any of the following: “-zhě” , “-jiā” , or “-yuán” to create the job title.
  2. If it’s less formal or more of a temporary or amateur position (drummer in a band, competitor) look to add “-shǒu” after the main noun involved (sailor and gunner are exceptions I guess, as is ).
  3. If you just want to talk about a hobby, just ask “Do you often VERB?”

As an example, if I want to create a formal book club dedicated to reading the collected works of Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅, I’d say:

Lǔ Xùn de dúzhě 鲁迅的读者 = readers of Lu Xun

(One student told me that authors often thank the “dúzhě” 读者 at the end of a book.)

But after that tennis racket girl shuts me down and I want to change tactics and ask if she’s an avid reader, I should say:

Nà, nǐ jīngcháng kàn shū ma? ,你经常看书吗? = So, do you often read books?

She’ll probably think I’m a player or a loser and just walk away.

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Stump the Chinese: Stunt

Sun, 12/13/2009 - 00:04

The other day in my English Corner (yīngyǔ jiǎo 英语角, basically a club for speaking English), we were talking about publicity stunts and someone used a little electronic dictionary to translate “stunt” as:

xuétóu 噱头

If you click on the hanzi above you’ll be taken to MDBG where you see that it’s more like “antics” or “shenanigans” than stunts that a stuntman would do. That’s fine. The definition seemed appropriate enough.

The problem was, no one in the room of about eight Chinese university students knew how to pronounce the first character: . Even one student who got a 98 percent (giving him the highest grade possible) on the Mandarin Test (pǔtōnghuà cèshì 普通话测试, discussed briefly here) didn’t know how to pronounce it.

Finally, someone looked it up in a cell phone or electronic dictionary that had pinyin and announced it was “xue2.” I guess it’s such an obscure character that it doesn’t really belong on David Moser’s list of common yet hard Hanzi. But still, good thing pinyin exists. Otherwise, they would have had méi bànfǎ 没办法 to find out how to say it.

According to MDBG, when it’s by itself, should be pronounced “jue2,” but Nciku lists it as “xue2″ in isolation as well as in compounds. Can anyone confirm which is correct?

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New Song: Kuàilè 快乐

Tue, 12/01/2009 - 07:12

My little Audacity-powered home recording studio just cranked out my third Chinese pop song: Kuàilè 快乐 (Happy).

Inspirational Story

It was my friend Adrian who first said, “Have you ever noticed every Chinese pop song has the word ‘kuàilè’ 快乐 in it?” He’s pretty much right. Of course there are about three songs getting air time on our campus radio that don’t mention ‘kuàilè’ 快乐, but if you start listening for it, you’ll see that word is all over the place.

I started thinking about other clichéd (that’s a 2nd tone) words in Chinese love songs. I decided to list the most common ones I’ve heard in Chinese pop music and write them all into one song. Here’s the original list (in order of appearance in the song):

  1. tiānkōng 天空 (sky)
  2. xīngxing 星星 (star)
  3. měilì 美丽 (beautiful)
  4. yuèliang 月亮 (moon)
  5. ài (love)
  6. tiānshǐ 天使 (angel)
  7. chìbǎng 翅膀 (wing)
  8. wēnróu 温柔 (tender)
  9. shǒu qiān shǒu 手牵手 (holding hands)
  10. kuàilè 快乐 (happy)
  11. xīntiào 心跳 (heart beat)
  12. mèng (dream)
  13. tiánmì 甜蜜 (sweet)
  14. kàojìn 靠近 (get close)
  15. húdié 蝴蝶 (butterfly)
  16. yǎnshén 眼神 (eyes / emotion seen through the eyes)
  17. xīnlǐ 心理 (heart / heart and mind)
  18. shēnbiān 身边 (by your side)
  19. xìngfú 幸福 (happy)

It then took almost no time at all to put those words into one long parade of clichés. But by then I was having so much fun I just had to put in a few more little phrases (like “bái mǎ wángzǐ” 白马王子), write a bridge, and finish the song.

Composition Notes

The music also employs a few musical clichés from Chinese pop.

  • The melody is exclusively pentatonic (you can play the melody using only the black keys on the piano). Traditional Chinese music has a long history of using pentatonic and even now many Chinese pop melodies stay within the pentatonic mode for most or all of the song (more on this later).
  • I modulate up two key changes just like Tónghuà 童话 by Guāng Liáng 光良.

One common convention in Chinese pop music that I haven’t followed is the practice of not writing a second verse. Many pop songs just go back and repeat part or all of verse 1 after the first chorus. Since I still had more clichés to shoehorn in, I couldn’t afford not to keep writing.

Two more little cultural shout-outs in the song are:

  1. The line “yuèliang dài wǒ shuō ‘ài nǐ’” 月亮代我说爱你 to reference the most popular love song of all time in China: Yuèliang dàibiǎo wǒ de xīn 月亮代表我的心 (The Moon Represents my Heart).
  2. The mention of húdié 蝴蝶 (butterfly) to reference the ever famous Butterfly Lovers (Liáng Shānbó 梁山伯 and Zhù Yīngtái 祝英台) already immortalized in various songs.

I hope you enjoy Kuàilè 快乐 and wish you all happy every day!

More of my music

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