Posts tagged: learn chinese language

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.

Jan 13 2010

巧妇难为无米之炊 – qiaofunanweiwumizhichui

巧妇难为无米之炊 – qiao3fu4nan2wei2wu2mi3zhi1chui1

Literal translation – skilled wife difficult to without rice make good meal.

Even the most skilled of wives/women is unable to make a good meal without rice

This Chinese Proverb is used to describe situations where the materials given are not sufficient for the job.  It means you cannot blame the person for the result or outcome when it was impossible to have a good outcome regardless of who handled the task.

Even the best cook in the world can’t make dinner if he doesn’t have any food.  If the quality of the food is inferior the taste will be too.  One cannot build a decent house without the right materials and one cannot do their job well if the boss is too cheap to buy decent tools.

I think you can use your imagination as to when and how to use this proverb as it pretty much speaks for itself.  However it does give us a glimpse into the Chinese culture and how rice is such an important part of their culture.  I would think “rice” is likely used in many idioms and proverbs.

Jan 02 2010

How to Say “Hello” & “Goodbye” in Chinese

Perhaps you already know how to say this common greeting, but do you know what you are actually saying ?

The common way to greet in Mandarin Chinese is :

ni3 hao3 – 你好

People will tell you this means “hello” in English but in my opinion that is a very poor translation.  When I personally am studying new words I like to know the literal translation of everything I learn.  That way I know how to use those words in other situations and I can also recognize them when they are used elsewhere.

When you say “ni3 hao3 – 你好” you are actually saying “you good”.  That’s what those 2 words literally translate as.  By telling someone they are good you are essentially saying “hello” or in otherwords you are greeting them.

If you want to ask someone “how are you” you simply add the question tag “ma” to the end of the sentence :

ni3 hao3 ma1 ? – 你好吗 ?

So now you are turning the statement “you good” into a question “are you good?” which is how to ask someone “how are you?”.  In English we might say “Hello, how are you?” but in Chinese you can’t say “nihao, nihao ma?” – that just sounds ridiculous.

Another way to ask someone “how are you” is by saying “you how about?” :

ni3 zen3meyang4 – 你怎么样 ?

You could also just say “zen3meyang4” as the “you” is implied by whom you are talking to.  “zenmeyang” means “how about” or “what about”.

Now for goodbye :

zai4jian4 – 再见

Here again we don’t literally have “goodbye” as there is no word that I know of in Chinese to say goodbye.  However in English “goodbye” is what we say when we part and in Chinese “zaijian” is the common parting phrase which literally means “again see”.  So you are basically saying “see you again”.

Another common parting phrase is :

xia4 ci4 jian4 – 下次见

Notice “jian4” is again the last word, so we have the word “see” used once more.  The first word “xia4” can be translated as “next” but also can mean “under”.  The “ci4” means “time” or “instance” i.e. “this is the third time/instance this has happened”.  So the farewell phrase above simply means “next time see” or “see you next time”.

When learning new Chinese words I recommend breaking them down individually to know their literal meaning.  This will help you to understand the language better.  When you know how Chinese speakers “think” you will be better able to grasp the language and speak like a native.

Jan 01 2010

Chinese Asking Personal Questions

Living in China has enabled me for the first time in my life experience “culture shock”.  I had heard about this and thought I had experienced it when I moved from Canada to the UK.  But now that I have lived here I truly know what it is.

There are so many things about life here that is entirely different from what I am used to.  One thing that any foreigner will notice about life in China is the lack of “personal space” and privacy.

It’s very common for Chinese people to ask what us westerners would consider “personal questions”.  Things like “how much money do you make?”, “how much did your …. cost ?” etc.  Financial matters are normally a very private and personal thing in the west, but not here.  They ask each other these questions all the time and us foreigners are even more interesting as they are curious about our financial matters.

If you are a woman you will be asked “how old are you?”, “are you married?” – questions normally that are inappropriate to ask complete strangers.  You may even be asked “how much do you weigh?”.  I am not actually sure what questions are considered inappropriate here.  Maybe anything can be asked of anyone, I am not sure.

In any event, if a Chinese person asks you a question that you think is too personal don’t take offense.  It’s just what they do.  If it happens outside of China you could kindly inform them that such questions aren’t appropriate as they likely have no idea and you can save them any future embarassment.  If you are inside of China you won’t be able to change everyone but you could still explain that such questions are personal in your culture and you’d prefer not to answer.  Just don’t take offense if you are asked something you’ve never been asked before.

Jan 01 2010

Months of the Year & Days of the Week

Here is another simple way to demonstrate how Chinese is easy.

If you can count to 12 in chinese and also say the word for “month” and “week” (i.e. a total of 14 words) not only are you able to say those 14 words, but you can also say all of the months of the year and the days of the week from Monday to Saturday without learning any extra words.

That’s because the months of the year in Mandarin Chinese are simply expressed as :

1 Month = January = yi1yue4

2 Month = February = er4yue4

3 Month = March = san1yue4

4 Month = April = si4yue4

5 Month = May = wu3yue4

6 Month = June = liu4yue4

7 Month = July = qi1yue4

8 Month = August = ba1yue4

9 Month = September = jiu3yue4

10 Month = October = shi2yue4

11 Month = November = shi2yi1yue4

12 Month = December = shi2er4yue4

So think of how much harder for a speaker of Mandarin to learn English.  Being able to count to 12 offers them no advantage in being able to say the months of the year.  They simply must memorize those 12 new words, but for us we just remember to say the month number and then the chinese word for month and there you have it.  So easy.

Days of the week are the same principle :

Week 1 = Monday = xing1qi1yi1

Week 2 = Tuesday = xing1qi1er4

Week 3 = Wednesday = xing1qi1san1

Week 4 = Thursday = xing1qi1si4

Week 5 = Friday = xing1qi1wu3

Week 6 = Saturday = xing1qi1liu4

The only exception to this rule is Sunday.  It is NOT expressed by saying “Week 7” as you would expect but instead it can be expressed by saying “week” and then the word for “sun” as in “xing1qi1ri4”, or by saying “week” and then the word for “day” or “sky” which is “tian1”, as in “xing1qi1tian1”.

Jan 01 2010

Best & Fastest Way to Learn How To Read Chinese Characters

Chinese Mandarin Frequency Dictionary

USA & Canada

Chinese Mandarin Frequency Dictionary


UPDATE OCT 28 2014 – I have developed a piece of online software that teaches Chinese character recognition.   It is based on the way I learned to read characters and if you use it correctly (ie daily) you should be able to read 50% of all written Chinese within 1 month and 90% of all written Chinese within 3 months

You can try my software for only $5 via paypal by clicking HERE.  This will purchase the top 50 most frequent characters enabling you to read about 30% of all written Chinese.

If you find this method effective (which I am SURE you will) you can then purchase Characters in quantities of 50 for $10 each up to as many as you want.  There is no time limit on usage of the software.  This is a limited time offer to get feedback and testimonials from students.

If you want to learn how to read Chinese Characters then this book is definitely one to buy (the software mentioned above already has the characters from this book in it, PLUS MORE).  I bought it a few years ago when I was finding my progress rate in the language was beginning to slow down.  I thought that by adding a new skill to my Mandarin Chinese ability (i.e. reading) that it would help me break through this plateau that every language learner reaches eventually, and usually more than once.

I don’t quite remember what brought me to buying this incredible book.  I think I was speaking to someone who was already well along in the language and I asked him “What is the best way to go about learning how to read Chinese?”, he mentioned the phrase “frequency dictionary” and I went online to look for one, and this is the one I found and bought.

Logically speaking this is the best way to leverage your efforts.  This book presents the top 500 characters in order of their frequency (the software I have developed has as many characters as you want, not just the top 500).  As with any language there are some words that are used more often than others.  There is no point learning how to read a Chinese character that you might only see once a year (at least not in the beginning anyways).

By using this book and learning the Characters in the exact order they are presented in this book you will think you are learning how to read Chinese at an alarming rate.  For example if you learn how to read only the first 100 characters in this book you will be able to read about 50% of all written Chinese.  That’s incredible considering there are an estimated 10,000 characters in the Chinese language.  So by knowing how to recognize only 1% of the total number of Chinese characters you will actually be able to read about 50% of whatever you see.  Incredible leverage !  It is said that you need to know about 2000 characters in order to be able to read a newspaper.  I am sitting at around 1000 characters and I can read at least 90% of everything that I see.  So as you can see, the next 1000 characters are only going to give me a few more percentage of reading ability.  This is why learning the first 500 is incredibly satisfying as you can actually see your progress by simply picking up a Chinese newspaper or book and highlighting the characters you recognize.

Further you don’t need to know how to write the characters in order to read them.  It’s simply a memory game.  The method I used was to create flashcards of each character and drill myself.  I would learn them in batches of 10, but you could do smaller batches of 5 or so to make it easier.  (The software I designed was based on the method I used years ago and I improved upon the method to increase it’s efficiency)

Once I mastered a batch of 10 I would learn the next batch of 10.  Once I learned the next batch of 10 I would be sure to review all the characters I had learned to date from the very beginning.  If I found that I was getting some of the earlier characters wrong I would wait until I was getting all my characters correct from the very start before moving on to the next batch of 10.  There’s no point in learning 10 new characters if you are already forgetting the first 10 you ever learned.  Especially when you consider those first 10 are the most frequent and therefore the most important 10 characters you will ever learn.  (The software I have designed does all this automatically.  When I learned I had to keep track of everything manually which slowed me down and reduced my efficiency, but it still worked well all be it slower than necessary)

You will be very surprised at how quickly you can learn to read using this method.  You can easily learn 10-20 characters per day just by spending 15-30 minutes using the flashcards.  What is really important though, and I can’t stress this enough, is to practice at least once per day.  Even if only for 10 minutes.  If you learn some characters and then take a break for a few days you will find that your brain has decided this info isn’t very important and then puts that info towards the back where access is slower.  By spending just a few minutes per day reviewing what you have learned and perhaps adding a few more characters each time you will be reading Chinese in no time.  It’s this regularity that tells the brain this info is important and needs to stay at the front for quick access.

A simple rule to remember with language learning is that 10-20 minutes per day is better than 10 hours in one day and nothing for the rest of the week.  10-20 minutes per day only equates to 1-2 hours per week.  Spaced out over time those 1-2 hours are more effective than 10 hours all in one day and then nothing for 6 days.

Another thing I would stress is be sure to learn the meaning of each character and not just how to pronounce it out loud.  This way you aren’t only learning how to read but you are also expanding your vocabulary.  This will of course slow down the rate at which you learn how to read, but you will be glad you did it this way in the long run.   So when using the flash cards (or whatever method you think up) don’t only practice how to say the character but also test your ability to remember what the character means.

This is another great aspect of this book.  It presents each character in order of frequency and also shows how that character is used.  It gives the definition and also many examples of how to use the character in a word or sentence.  Extremely useful stuff.

I can’t stress enough how satisfying it is to be able to read Chinese.  It’s a skill I never imagined I would ever have, and now that I can read most of what I see (I still only know about 1000 Characters) I feel like I have conquered a mountain.  What is more, it was much easier than I had ever imagined.

Be sure however not to run before you can walk.  If you are just getting started in Chinese make sure you have mastered all of the basic sounds and phonetics before you embark on the reading aspect of Chinese.

I have to admit that I have wasted a lot of money on various “learn Chinese books”  over the years and they haven’t done much for me.  This book however is the exception.  I owe my ability to read Chinese to this book.  I hope you find it as useful as I did.

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