Posts tagged: learn chinese

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 29 2009

Easy Past Tense Verbs

In Mandarin Chinese expressing verbs in the past tense is extremely easy.  In order to demonstrate this simply without teaching you any Chinese first let’s take a look at how incredibly difficult English is.

I am -> I was

I go -> I went

I eat -> I ate

I want -> I wanted

The first 3 verbs are irregular verbs, the English language has TONS of these annoying verbs.  The last verb is a regular verb meaning we can just add “ed” to the end of the verb to make it past tense.

So think for a second how difficult a language English is to learn.  A foreign speaker must simply memorize the past tenses of all those irregular verbs.   Imagine for a second, however, that the “ed” applied to every single verb in the English language.  In this hypothetical world the verbs above would be rendered :

I am -> I amed

I go -> I goed

I eat -> I eated

I want -> I wanted

To a native speaker of English the above renderings sound ridiculous, but to someone learning English they likely have sleepless nights wondering why they can’t just speak in the manner above.   It’s completely logical, but of course incorrect.

Now in Mandarin Chinese our hypothetical world comes true.  This is because they also have a similar “ed” rule in order to make their verbs past tense.  However, this rule has absolutely no exceptions.  There are no irregular verbs to memorize, just one simple rule that applies to the whole language.  Isn’t that easy ?

The figurative “ed” is actually “le”.  Just say “le” after any verb in Mandarin and you have the past tense.  To illustrate using our 4 examples above you simply say :

I am -> I am le

I go -> I go le

I eat -> I eat le

I want -> I want le

There’s no need to go into the actual Chinese for the verbs above as I am simply demonstrating one of the many ways in which Chinese is easy and logical.   (I do have to say though that the Chinese would rarely ever, perhaps never, put “le” after the verb “to be”.  So my example “I am le” isn’t entirely accurate as with this verb the context of the sentence would indicate whether we are talking about the past.  I think that one verb is the only exception.)

Now let’s talk a little bit about the Present Perfect tense.  Above was just simple past tense.  If you aren’t familiar with grammar and what Present Perfect means here are some examples :

I have eaten apples

I have heard that before

I have been to China

So we have situations where we “did” something and sometimes we say we “have done” something.  The most obvious difference I can see is that simple past tense is normally used to describe something we did in the recent past  (perhaps yesterday or last week) whereas present perfect is describing something we have done in the more distant past  or when we want to express that we have had the experience of doing something at least once.  For example when someone asks the question “Have you ever … ?” In order to answer that we would say “Yes I have …..” or “No I haven’t ever …..” using present perfect tense.  Using the verbs mentioned at the outset let’s look at their present perfect renderings :

I am -> I was -> I have been

I go -> I went -> I have gone

I eat -> I ate -> I have eaten

I want -> I wanted -> I have wanted

Here again we see no rule that applies to all the verbs making it that much more difficult to learn.  Mandarin Chinese however does have another rule to convey this type of verb tense.  You simply add “guo” to any verb.  So you would have :

I am -> I am le -> I am guo

I go -> I go le  -> I go guo

I eat -> I eat le -> I eat guo

I want -> I want le-> I want guo

Again with the first verb “to be” Chinese would never use “guo”, but I am just illustrating the simplicity of this rule.  The verb “to be” would be the only exception.

So there you have it.  Just learn “le” and “guo” and you have all the past tense versions of every single verb in the Mandarin language.  Can you say the same for English, French or Spanish ?  This is just one of many reasons why I think this is a very easy language to learn to speak.  I admit that the reading and writing is perhaps the most difficult, but you don’t need to know how to read or write in order to communicate and isn’t communication the purpose of language ?

I personally haven’t learned to write, nor do I think I ever will as I don’t need to.  I have learned how to read most of what I see but that was only out of interest and to continue challenging myself.  If you are thinking of learning Chinese or already are put reading and writing on the back burner, focus on your speaking and listening skills.  That’s just my personal recommendation.  You will have your hands full enough with just speaking and listening, no need to put your brain into overload.

Feel free to leave your comments and/or feedback

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 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 04 2009

Easy Future Tense Verbs

In my earlier articles I 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.

Now I want to demonstrate how easy Mandarin Chinese is when it comes to expressing verbs in their future tense.

In fact in English it is also quite easy to express verbs in the future tense by simply putting “will” in front of the verb. For example :

I eat

I will eat

Chinese is exactly the same. All one needs to do is put the word “hui” in front of any verb and you have the future tense eg :

I eat

I “hui” eat

In order to keep things simple I have used the English words of course. I think it’s easier this way instead of teaching you the words for “I” and “eat”.   It’s not necessary to demonstrate the simple grammar Mandarin Chinese has.   Now you may think this is nothing because English is just as easy when it comes to this tense.   But when you compare Mandarin Chinese to French, this is a HUGE difference.   French changes their verbs when expressing future tense.   For example the same verb “to eat” which in French the infinitive is “manger”

Je mange (I eat)

Je mangerai (I will eat)

So although Chinese is just as easy as English when it comes to expressing future tense,  one must not forget that many languages are very complex when it comes to expressing verbs in a future tense.   I again use French to compare because I spent many years learning French at school only to be able to barely survive while on holiday in France once,  whereas after 2 years of learning Mandarin Chinese as a hobby I was already having basic conversations with native speakers (much to my own surprise!)

In my next article I will demonstrate how easy Mandarin Chinese is when it comes to learning new words and vocabulary.

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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