Posts tagged: learn mandarin online

Jan 22 2011

关公面前耍大刀 – guangongmianqianshuadadao

关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1

Literal translation – Guangong (name of famous warlord) in front of play sword


Play with a sword in the presence of Guangong

This basically means to attempt to show ones limited skills in the presence of someone who is highly skilled.

Guangong (also known as Guanyu) was a noted excellent swordsman.  No one dared challenge him to a sword fight, sort of like a Billy the Kid of Chinese history.  So of course if someone was attempting to show their swordsmanship in front of Guanyu it would be embarassing, really, as he would be no match for Guanyu.

I especially like the idioms that encompass a little bit of Chinese culture or history like this one.  Any idiom involving Guanyu, Zhugeliang and such figures are all the much more intriguing and interesting in my opinion.

The modern day usage of this proverb I think is pretty obvious.  If anyone is trying to flaunt their skills in the presence of someone who’s skills surpass the “flaunter” then this proverb applies.

There are 2 sides to its usage I think. One usage is if perhaps you want to express your humility.  If someone is more skilled than you in something but you still carry out the task for whatever reason you can say that you are 关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1.  If you say this in this situation you are guaranteed to get a smile or laugh from your chinese friend.  Because you are essentially admitting that they are much better than you at this skill (whatever it may be).  So it’s a way to give them a compliment or give them some “face”.  Further, a foreigner using an expression like this which is close to their hearts is guaranteed to have an excellent reception.

In a negative way this could also be used to sort of put someone in their place i.e. someone who thinks a little bit too much of themselves because they are limitedly skilled in some area.  If someone is in their presence whom is much better then this proverb could be used to humble them or to let them realise they should step aside and let the pro take over.

Another idiom that basically carries the same meaning is 班门弄斧 – ban1men2nong4fu3.  The meaning is basically the same, but I much prefer using 关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1 because of the visual image and the cultural content.

Jan 27 2010

因人而异 – yinreneryi

因人而异 – yin1ren2er2yi4

Literal meaning of each character = because – people – and/yet/but – different

This is a fairly self explanatory idiom when you read the meaning of each character.  It basically means “everybody is different”, “differ from person to person” or “vary with each individual”

I first came across this idiom when talking about language learning and comparing languages with a taxi driver.  I gave my opinion about Chinese being easy and French being hard and I also said that it was only my opinion and someone else may feel differently.  I also comparing my learning Chinese faster than french and so on and at some point in the conversation he said this idiom.

So I now use it when talking about language learning to say that some people learn faster than others.  It isn’t to say that anyone is a better person than anyone else, it’s just that they are “different”.   However I am pretty sure that it can be used to other situations when talking about peoples individual abilities or maybe even tastes etc.

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.

Dec 30 2009

Chinese Language Immersion

We all know that one of the best ways to learn or improve in a language is through immersion.  It’s why children who immigrate to other countries pick up the language so quickly.

I also took this step 2 years ago when I moved to China.  I had been learning Mandarin for 3.5 years already when I hit a plateau or bottle neck in my language progress.  This is something that happens to everyone on a regular basis when learning any language.  So I thought the best way to break through this bottle neck was to move to China in order to be immersed in the language.

Of course I personally haven’t noticed much of an improvement over the past 2 years, but if I were to return home and talk to my Chinese friends I am sure they would sing my praises and be blown away with my improvement.  This is because we never notice our own improvement in language learning, especially after the first few years are over.  It becomes a very slow gradual process the same way in which our body grows.  Children growing up don’t actually notice themselves get taller but if they see someone whom they haven’t seen in a while then that person notices how much taller they are.

So if you are considering re-locating to China for a short or long time I would certainly recommend it for your Chinese learning.  There’s no doubt that being fully immersed in the language helps you to reach the goal of fluency.  However with that comes a lot of other problems like home sickness and culture shock.  I have sure had my fair share of Chinese culture shock and may write about it in the future.  I miss home a lot, but I know being here is the best thing for my Mandarin learning and reaching the eventual goal of being a simultanious translator.

So if you are thinking of coming here it’s quite easy.  There are tons and tons of English teaching jobs.  You would have no trouble getting work and living here is quite cheap.  In fact your standard of living would likely be higher than at home and you would only need to work about 15-20 hours per week.  The work however is something I personally hate but others love it.

If you have any feedback or comments feel free to leave them below.

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 ?

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