Posts tagged: how to learn mandarin

Feb 11 2010

身在曹营心在汉 – shen zai cao ying xin zai han

身在曹营心在汉 – shen1 zai4 cao2 ying2 xin1 zai4 han4

Literal translation = body – at – Cao (name) – camp – heart – at – Han (name)

Idiomatic translation = Your body is in the camp of Cao but your heart is in Han’s camp.

This is a very nice Ancient Chinese Proverb.  If you can use it correctly it will really touch the hearts of Chinese people and they will be highly impressed with your Chinese.

Cao was a famous war general and appears in the famous book The Three Kingdoms.  I haven’t read the book myself but I know the other famous general in there is Zhu Ge Liang and I assume there is one named “Han” as well.

I am not sure if there is a specific story about a certain soldier whom this idiom applies to or not, but it basically comes the history of Caocao and his wars at the time of the The 3 Kindgoms.

The usage and meaning of this is quite specific.  I used to think it just meant someone who is there in body but not in spirit (perhaps day dreaming) but the real meaning is about where someone’s loyalty lies.

For example, a company is bought out by a bigger company and maybe fires the managers and a new manager comes in.  You still have the same job but now you have a new boss, however you still love the old boss and have devotion to him or her.  So although your body is working for the new company and new management, you miss the old company and management and still have loyalty to them even begrudgingly continuing your job.

Therefore, there aren’t many opportunities to use this idiom as it’s meaning is quite specific.

Dec 18 2009

Is Learning Mandarin Chinese Impossible ?

Growing up as a child I had been brainwashed into believing that Mandarin Chinese was impossible to learn.  In fact at that time I just called it “Chinese” having no idea there were many different Chinese dialects and languages.

Seeing all those pictographic characters and knowing that I could change the meaning of a word just by changing the intonation was enough for me to believe that this language was impossible.

However, when a friend of mine started learning the language I thought “why not ?”

Initially I was just learning Mandarin for fun, something to keep the brain active after leaving school, you know ?  But once I started learning I actually started to get good at it.  I started to see that it wasn’t impossible to learn Mandarin Chinese.  I admit it hasn’t been ridiculously easy, but I have certainly found it much easier than any other language I have learned.  I would even go so far as to say it must be one of the easiest languages to learn if you exclude the reading and writing part.  As spoken languages go, I think it has the most simple grammar I have ever seen.

For example Mandarin doesn’t have regular and irregular verbs.  That’s because all verbs follow the same rules without exceptions, unlike English and other European languages.

Yes there are the tones that the language requires.  You can change the meaning of a word just by changing the tone.  However, you don’t need to freak out about that.  I know many people who’s tones are always off but they can still be understood.  However, it isn’t impossible to master the tones.  There are only 5, imagine learning Cantonese which apparantly has 9 tones ?!?!

Dec 18 2009

Mandarin Chinese Pronouns are Easy

In this article I want to demonstrate how simple Mandarin Chinese is when learning the pronouns and related vocabulary.   In English we have the following basic pronouns:


We don’t have a plural pronoun for “You” i.e. when addressing a crowd.   We simply say “you” or “all of you”.   French however does have a word for this i.e. “vous” and Chinese also has a word to convey “you” in the plural.   However Mandarin Chinese is very easy when it comes to learning pronouns.   Let’s pretend for example we could just add an “s” to make the pronouns plural like so :

I = I
We = Is
You = You
All of you = Yous
He = He
They = Hes

Can you imagine how much easier English would be to learn if we could apply a rule like this ? Instead someone learning English must learn each individual pronoun.   However, in Mandarin Chinese this is exactly what they do.   There are only 3 basic spoken pronouns as follows (Pinyin Romanized Chinese) :

I = Wo
You = Ni
He/She/It = Ta

So already you can see that in order to learn 5 English words in Mandarin you only need to learn 3 – Wo, Ni & Ta.   In spoken Mandarin Chinese they don’t verbally differentiate between “he” “she” and “it”.   These are all the same spoken word (however they are written differently).  Therefore when speaking about someone and referring to them as “Ta” we don’t know if we are talking about a boy or girl.   This may sound a bit strange but when you think about it it’s quite logical.   Through the context of the conversation we know whether we are talking about a male or female or thing.

If I am talking about my wife I have no need to explain that she is female as the context already explains that.   Therefore when referring to her in Chinese in the 3rd person “Ta” is sufficient. Of course there are times where I do have to ask the person I am speaking with if they are talking about a male or female, but this isn’t that often.   Due to this reason, many Chinese learners of English often mix up the 3rd person pronouns referring to their husband as “she” and to their girl friend as “he” etc.   This is one of the biggest basic problems for native Mandarin Speakers as they are un accustomed to having different spoken 3rd person pronouns and therefore constantly make this mistake.

Now let me demonstrate how easy it is to learn how to say “We”, “You – plural” and “They”.   In Mandarin Chinese you don’t need to learn 3 new words,  you simply add another word to convey the idea of plural.   That word is “men”.

We = Wo men (i.e “I” + plural “men”)
You plural = Ni men (i.e “You” + plural “men”)
They = Ta men (i.e “He/She/It” + plural “men”)

Here we have another example of “Buy 1 get 2 free” or “learn 1 get 2 free”.   Simply by learning 1 word, “men”,  we learn how to convey 3 new words in Mandarin Chinese.   Therefore by knowing how to pronounce these 4 words :  Wo, Ni, Ta & Men we can say 8 equivalent English pronouns :  I, We, You, You plural, He, She, It & They.

However,  not only that but there are more free words that you gain by knowing how to say simply Wo,  Ni,  Ta & Men.

Look at these English sentences :

She gave the ball to her
He gave the ball to him
He gave the ball to me
They gave the ball to them
They gave the ball to us

Notice we can’t say :

She gave the ball to she
He gave the ball to he
He gave the ball to I
They gave the ball to they
They gave the ball to we

No,  but a learner of English must learn 5 more words to be able to speak correctly.   If someone said “she gave the ball to she” of course we would understand the meaning of the foreigner,  but it’s still incorrect grammar.   In Mandarin Chinese this problem doesn’t exist because that’s exactly how they speak.   Let me replace the pronouns above with their Mandarin Chinese pinyin versions to illustrate

“Ta” gave the ball to “ta”
“Ta” gave the ball to “ta”
“Ta” gave the ball to “wo”
“Ta men” gave the ball to “ta men”
“Ta men” gave the ball to “wo men”

The above sentences are grammatically correct in Mandarin.   So you have just gained another 5 more words for free. By knowing how to say just Wo,  Ni,  Ta & Men (4 words) you can say the following 12 English words :  I,  Me,  We,  Us, You, You plural, He, Him, She, Her, It, They, Them.

Isn’t that easy ?

Dec 10 2009

Chinese Lego Language – Learn X Words Get Y Free

In my other posts I have discussed how easy Mandarin Chinese is to learn because of its amazingly simple verb conjugations and also how easy it is to express all of their verbs in the past tense and future tense

Now I want to demonstrate how easy Mandarin Chinese is when it comes to learning new vocabulary and why it can be called “The Lego Language”.

How many stores have you been to where they have the sign “Buy 2 get 1 free”? We all love to get a bargain and discounts.   Well, when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese I kind of think us language learners are getting a HUGE bargain when it comes to “brainspace” and challenges to our memory.

Let me illustrate.   Imagine someone learning English.   Here are 3 words that a foreigner would have to learn:


Those 3 words are entirely different and have no relation to one another.   Someone learning English would have to learn all 3 words by memorization.   But in Mandarin Chinese you only need to learn 2 and you get the 3rd one free! Because of this building block characteristic I often call it the “Lego Language” and I also have found others coining the same phrase too.

Do you remember those Lego sets ?  There were only so many “types” of blocks right ?  Big ones, small ones, flat ones.  I’m not sure how many different types of blocks there were, but there weren’t 100s of them.  Those finite number of blocks could be used to build almost anything.  Just by changing the order in which they were stacked up on top of each other could build you a car, plane, train or house all with the same Lego set.

Chinese Mandarin is just like that!  You just need to learn the basic words of the language and then you combine those words you already know in order to make new words.   So in the above example you only need to learn :


And your “free” word “volcano” is simply expressed by saying “fire mountain”

This phenomenon is something you see very regularly in Mandarin Chinese. Here are some more examples :


Good eat = delicious



Look at / See

Difficult Look at = Ugly


Light (as in weight, ie not heavy)
Years light = young


Hand machine = mobile phone


Electric / Electricity
Word (Spoken)
Look at
Electric word (spoken) = telephone
Electric look at = television
Electric image = movie/film
Electric stairs = elevator
Electric Brain = Computer


With the example above involving “electric” it’s actually a learn 6 and get 5 free! Therefore, in my opinion, this is an easy language to learn ALSO because you don’t need to learn every single individual word in the language.   You can just learn the basic words and get more complex words for free by just remembering how to combine the basic words to form new complex logical meanings.   The combinations of these words are not strange at all as you can see above, they are very logical and therefore very easy to remember.   I think this is just yet another reason why Mandarin Chinese is one of the easiest languages to learn to speak (I’m not at all referring to reading or writing in these series of articles).

Dec 08 2009

Why Learn Mandarin Chinese ?

When I first started learning Mandarin it was only as a hobby.  But after I started getting good at it I started to think of the practical uses being proficient in this language would bring.

China is quickly becoming a power house on the world scene.  It’s economy continues to grow even with the world experiencing economic crisis, China’s economy continues to grow (all be it at a slower rate than before).

Further when you look at the minorities in various countries around the world, which minority has the largest amount of people ?  Is it not the Chinese ?  At least that’s what I have noticed.

Moreover, have you not noticed that more and more schools are offering Mandarin courses and even some middle schools have made Mandarin mandatory ?  What does that say about the government’s view to this language ?  What that tells me is they are realizing the value and importance of this language.

As a result I am very happy I started learning Mandarin when I did.  I somewhat feel like I am a little ahead of the pack now and I am confident I will be able to use this skill in the future working as a translator/interpreter or even a Mandarin teacher.

Dec 06 2009

Basic Chinese Pronouns

When learning a language we all need to start somewhere, and perhaps the best place is the pronouns.

I = Wo3

We = Wo3 men

You = Ni3

You PLURAL = Ni3 men

He/She/It = Ta1

They = Ta1 men

Notice in Mandarin you can simply add the word “men” to pluralize pronoun. “I” becomes “WE” simply by adding “men”.   So you only need to learn 4 words :

wo3, ni3, ta1, & men

With those 4 words you are able to say :

I, We, Me, Us, He, She, It, Him, Her, They, Them

Notice in English we have “I” and “ME”.  Because we would never say “please give it to I”.  We must change “I” to “ME” but in mandarin this phenomenon doesn’t exist, again making it that much easier to learn this language

Dec 05 2009

How To Ask Questions in Mandarin Chinese

Asking questions in Chinese couldn’t be easier.  Let’s first compare English statements to questions

He is big

Is he big ?

In English we need to reverse the order of the verb and the pronoun in order to create a question.  However we also have another way to ask questions and that is using intonation.  If we were to make the statement “he is big” but at the end of the sentence raise our voice this conveys the idea of asking a question.  It’s not grammatically a question as the tone cannot be conveyed on paper unless of course we write the question mark like “he is big?”.

In mandarin however they have what I like to think of as a verbal question mark.  In Mandarin Chinese any statement can be turned into a question by simply saying the word “ma1” (1st tone) at the end.  So in the example above you would have :

He big

He big “ma” ?

I think this is a great feature of Mandarin Chinese making it very easy to learn.  Also notice the lack of the verb “to be” in the examples above.  In English we really overuse the verb “to be”.  We have to say “He IS big” but in mandarin it isn’t necessary as it is logically implied.  If we say “he” and then an adjective, logic implies that he IS that adjective.

There is also another way to make a question and that is to say the following :

He big not big ?

So if you don’t want to put “ma” at the end of a sentence to make it a question you can simply give the positive and negative options.  This and the use of “ma” are essentially only useable with yes/no questions.

Finally there is one more way to ask questions that is probably less common and I didn’t know until moving here.  Therefore this method may only be idiomatic or “street chinese” so it may not sound good to every Chinese speaker.  Similar to putting “ma” at the end of a sentence to make it a question you can also put “mei2you” or even just simply “mei2”.   So using our example above you could ask :

He big mei2you ?

He big mei2 ?

But remember this is something I heard after moving here so it could be street slang or whatever.  Use this method carefully.

So there you have it.   Asking a question in Mandarin Chinese is as simple as making a statement and adding the question tag word “ma” at the end or just stating both the positive and negative in the same sentence.

Of course when using actual question words like “who,what, when, where, why, how” etc you wouldn’t use any of the above structures because by using question words it’s already obvious you are using a question.  This is a mistake many foreigners make when speaking Chinese.  They get so used to saying “ma” at the end of a question that they even say “ma” when asking a who,what, when, where, why, or how question.  So try to be careful of that bad habit.

Dec 05 2009

Mandarin Chinese Basic Sentence Structure

Here I will explain some basic Mandarin Chinese sentence structure and grammar.

First of all when speaking mandarin you will want to put the time element of any sentence at the beginning of the sentence.  Further you will also want to put the people or nouns near the beginning too.  For example the English sentence :

Would you like to go to the movies with me tomorrow ?

Notice the structure in English.  The word “tomorrow” is the last word in English but in Chinese it would be the first word.  Further the second last word in English is “me” but in Chinese that needs to be near the begging close to the word “you”.  Let’s look at how this sentence would be said in Mandarin Chinese (without changing the words into Chinese for simplicity)

Tomorrow you would like with me to go to the movies ?

Here is another English sentence that we can change into Chinese Grammar :

I am going to America next year with my wife

The Chinese version would be :

Next year I and my wife are going to America

If that seems strange to you don’t worry.  You get used to it and it feels totally natural.  In fact I sometimes find myself speaking that way in English.  I guess that’s how you know you are really getting into the language when your mother tongue begins to be influenced.  It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Dec 03 2009

Easy Verb Conjugations

Taking English as an example I will demonstrate how easy Mandarin Chinese is.  English (and many other languages) have multiple verb conjugations depending on the pronoun used.  For example the verb “to be”

Infinitive = to be



He/She/It IS

Notice that “to be” becomes “am”, “are” and “is” depending on the pronoun used.

Now, how think about how easy would English be if we spoke like this instead? :

Infinitive = to be



He/She/It TO BE

Notice in my hypothetical example above the infinitive “to be” never actually changes when using “I” “You” or “He/She/It”.   If you know any French then you will know the infinitive of the verb “to be” is “etre” but when using pronouns French renders it “Je suis” “Tu as” “Il/Elle est”.   Here again French also changes the verb for each pronoun the same as English.   French also takes it one step further in complication.   In English we say “We ARE” which is the same conjunction as “You” i.e. “You ARE” but French have yet ANOTHER conjugation for “WE” making their language just that much more difficult!

Now let’s get back to Chinese.   Chinese does exactly what I have illustrated above.   The infinitive of their verbs NEVER EVER change!!! When I learned this I was so happy! One of my most hated things about French was the endless verb tables we had to learn.   There were regular verbs and irregular verbs,  so hard to remember all the rules and then the exceptions to the rules!!!

With Mandarin Chinese,  none of that is a problem.   In Mandarin Chinese the verb “to be” is “shi4” (pinyin spelling with tone #).   So when saying:  I am, You are, He/She/It is – in Mandarin Chinese you say “shi4” each and every time regardless of the pronoun.   Isn’t that really easy?

So when learning English, a foreign speaker must remember:  “to be”, “am”, “are”, & “is”,  but when learning Mandarin Chinese we only need to remember 1 word “shi4”.   This rule is repeated for EVERY SINGLE verb in the language without exception! Therefore you have just cut your language learning workload down by 75% if you choose to learn Mandarin.

In my next article I will show you how incredibly easy Mandarin Chinese is to express Past tense verbs. Yet another challenge for me when I was learning French.

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