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Learning Chinese: The Structure Of A Sentence

Learning just the vocabulary of a language is not enough.  We have to be able to put the words we learned together to form coherent sentences. Knowing the correct word order is an important milestone on a student’s way to language fluency.  Indeed, it is one of the last pieces of the puzzle that, when fall into place, would illuminate every crook and cranny of an unfamiliar language.  In this article, we will analyze the structure of a Chinese sentence, and from there create a foundation upon which we can build our language mastery.

Let’s start simple and pick an object for our example.  The word for “house” in Mandarin is “fángzi ” (房子).  The word for “one” is “yī” (一).  To say “a house”, you would say “Yīgè fángzi” (一个房子).

This simple declaration of a thing has already taught us our first lesson, the use of classifiers, or measure words.  Whenever you want to express the number of objects, you have to insert a measure word between the number and the noun.  Furthermore, each type of object has its own measure word.  One dog is “yī zhī gǒu” (一只狗); A piece of paper is “Yī zhāng zhǐ” (一张纸).  The measure words act as an extra descriptive connector between the number and the noun. Papers are “zhāng” (“张”) , flat pieces, while books are “běn” (本), stacks of documents. There are some rough rules of when to use which measure word, but they are not definitive, you will just have to commit them to memory.  Here is a small sample of some common measure words.

Object type Measure Word Example
Packets or Parcels bāo (包) bāo mǐfàn (a bag of rice)
Things bound together běn (本) běn shū (a book)
Animals and parts of body zhī (只) zhī gǒu (a dog)
Leaves or sheets of something zhāng (张) zhāng zhǐ (a piece of paper)
Long, thin, or winding objects zhī (枝) zhī bǐ (a pen)
Generic word, people and small objects gè (个) rén (a person)

A nice trick is to lump the classifier together as the first syllable of the word: “zhāng zhǐ,” (paper), “zhī gǒu ” (dog), “běn shū “(book).  If someone mix up the measure word and say “zhī shū ” or “běn gǒu”, your brain should do a double take and cry out “that doesn’t sound right!”, because a dog is not a stack of documents bound together, nor is a book a long, thin, or winding object.

Let’s add a descriptive modifier to our object.  “A yellow house” in Mandarin is ” Yī gè huángsè de fángzi” (一个黄色的房子). This step teaches us two more things.  First, the adjective comes before the noun.  The word for yellow is “huángsè”.  And just like in English, you cannot say “house yellow” (“fángzi huángsè”), but you can say “That house is yellow” (“Nà ge fángzi shì huángsè de”).

Second, we introduced the usage of the word “de” (的).  You will hear or see that word often in the Chinese language.  The particle “de” has many usages. It can be used as a possessive modifier, i.e. ” Wǒ de fángzi” = “my house”; ” Nǐ de fángzi” = “your house”, “Mary de fángzi” = “Mary’s house”.  It can also be used as a descriptive particle, linking an adjective to a noun: “Dà de fángzi ” = big house; “huángsè de fángzi ” = “yellow house”.  And lastly, “de” can be tacked on to the end of a phrase to emphasize a declarative statement.  “Wǒ huì zǒu de!” means “I will leave!”

Next, let’s form a complete sentence with what we’ve learned so far.  We can say Yǒu yī gè huángsè de fángzi” to state “There is a yellow house.”  The word “yǒu” (有) means “to have”.  To say “There is”, you really should say “Nàlǐ yǒu …”, where “Nàlǐ” (那里) means “there” in a physical sense.  However, we can omit the “Nàlǐ” if we want to, it can be implied if we don’t care about the location.  Saying “Nàlǐ yǒu yī gè fángzi” calls to the fact that a certain location has a house, whereas “Yǒu yī gè fángzi” merely states the existence of a house.

Let’s get more advanced and add another piece of information.  To say: “There is a yellow house next to the river“, we would add “… zài hé biān” to the end of the sentence.  “Hé” (河) means “river”, “pángbiān” (旁边) means “next to”, and “zài” is the linking preposition.  “Zài” (在) is an extremely useful word, equivalent to the prepositions “at, on, in, under, to” in the English language.  Also, notice the preposition “biān“ (next to) is tacked on to the right of the subject: “… zài hé biān,” and not before (e.g. you can’t say “… zài biān hé”).  Our sentence now becomes “Zài hé biān yǒu yīgè huángsè de fángzi” (在河边有一个黄色的房子).

Lastly, let’s alter our sentence to express possessiveness of this wonderful house we’ve been describing.  How would you say “The yellow house next to the river is ours”?  From the lessons above, we’ve learned that we can add the word “de” after “Wǒmen” (we) to make it possessive: “Wǒmen de”.  So let’s get rid of “yǒu …” (“There is …”) and replace it with “…wǒmen de” (“… is ours”) to the end of the sentence.  This changes our sentence to “Zài hé biān huángsè de fángzi shì women de“.

There are a couple of subtle lessons shown in that last step.  First, there is no word for “the” in the Chinese language.  To say “The teacher”, you simply say “teacher” (“Lǎoshī”).  To say “The Bell Tower,” you simply say “bell tower” (“Zhōnglóu”).  This is why Chinese speakers have such a hard time learning this rule in the English language.

Second, we have to put all the modifying information of an object (“next to the river”, “yellow”) before the noun.  “The yellow house” is “huángsè de fángzi”. The house next to the river” is “Hé biān de fángzi”.  And because we have to keep “huángsè de” connected to “fángzi”, we have to move the piece of information regarding the relationship of the river to the front of the sentence (“Zài hé biān huángsè de fángzi”).

The Mandarin word “is/are/be” is “shì”.  The information we add after “shì” is of course the main piece of information we are trying to convey.  For example, we could say “Huángsè de fángzi shì zài hé biān” to express that the yellow house is next to the river (as oppose to next to a mountain or in the river).  Or we could say “Zài hé biān de fángzi shì  huángsè de” to express that the house next to the river is yellow (as oppose to white or red).  In both cases, the piece of information after “shì” is the main point of the sentence.  Hence, back to our original exercise, to say “The yellow house next to the river is ours”, we would say “Zài hé biān huángsè de fángzi shì wǒmen de” (在河旁边黄色的房子是我们的). Tada!  All the words fall into place in their correct order to form a coherent sentence worthy of a fluent Chinese student.

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language stuff

Learning Chinese: Things You Shouldn’t Say In Polite Company

Did you know you should not say the phrase “chuī xiāo” (吹箫 – literally “blow flute”), even though you really mean to express the act of flute playing?  I learned this, embarrassingly, during one of our content design sessions, in which I was tasked with designing the lessons teaching musical instruments to our users.  When translating the sentence “I can play the flute,” I said in Mandarin “Wǒ huì chuī xiāo” (我会吹箫).  Our Chinese employees cracked up laughing.  Seeing the confused look on my face, they explained that chuī xiāo has become slang for ” blow job”.

“What should I say if I really want to express the activity of flute playing then?”  I asked.  They told me I should use the more formal “Chuī chángdí” (吹长笛) instead.

I’ve since learned other words and phrases that, when translated literally, are innocent, but have idiomatically morphed into something which are not.  For example, you should never say any words that are pronounced “ba” after any words that are pronounced “jī”, as in … “Let’s eat some chicken” (Wǒmen chī jī ba).  “Jība” is slang for the male genitalia, so you can imagine what “chī” (eat) “jība” implies.

Even using the wrong format grammatically can get you in trouble.  When expressing someone’s mother (innocently), you should use two “ma”s (你妈妈) or inject a “de” (possessive connector) between the pronoun and the object, e.g. “Nǐ de māmā” (你的妈妈), “Tā de māmā” (他的妈妈).  The “de” and the second “ma” are very important.  You should not omit them, such as saying just “Nǐ mā” or “Tā mā”, or moving the “de” to the end by mistake… “Tā mā de”.  All three of the latter phrases are the shortened form of the curse phrase that involves inappropriate behaviors toward someone’s mother.

Another mistake I’ve learned not to make is to call a woman “xiǎojiě” (小姐), even though the word means “young lady”, “miss”, or “waitress”.  “Xiǎojiě” is slang for “prostitute” in many parts of China, calling someone that will likely get you slapped.  But, you can still use it along with a surname to address a person, as in “Wang Xiǎojiě” (Miss Wang).  Just don’t go around yelling “Xiǎojiě!  Xiǎojiě!” on the street to get someone’s attention.

Here are some other common slangs and phrases for you should watch out for:

打飞机 (Dǎ fēijī): literally means “to fight aircraft” or “shoot airplanes”, but is slang for male masturbation.

飞机场 (Fēijī chǎng): literally means “airport” or “landing strip”.  But if you call a girl this you’re saying she has small breasts.

玻璃 (Bōlí): literally means “glass”, but is slang for a gay male.  The term is a play on the English phrase “boy love”, morphing into the phonetically similar “bōlí” in Mandarin.

带绿帽 (Dài lǜ mào): literally means to wear a green hat, but refers to a man whose wife is cheating on him.  It came from laws used in China from the 13th to the 18th century which required the males in households with prostitutes to wrap their heads in a green scarf (or later a hat).

小三 (Xiǎosān) or 二奶 (Èr nǎi) – literally “Little third” or “Second lady”.  Slang for mistress, as in the third member or the second woman.

大姨妈 (dà yímā) – literally means “the eldest aunt”, but can refer to a woman’s menstruation period.  As in “Wǒ dà yímā lái le” (my eldest aunt came to visit).

You can find more of these slangs by running a quick internet search.  Two useful pages I found include:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_Chinese_profanity and http://www.chinasmack.com/glossary.

Slang and profanity can bring color and character to any language.  Studying the slang vernacular of a language, and their origins, can give insight into the culture from which they derive.  It may not be wise to utter these words or phrases in public, but it may be useful to look them over, not only for your amusement, but also to avoid any potential embarrassment.

But should you inadvertently utter something inappropriate, don’t worry.  Most Chinese speakers are quite forgiving when they realize you’re just learning the language.  The Chinese are very used to ignorant laowais.  Just don’t laugh hysterically after you’ve said it, because then you’re saying it on purpose, and deserve to get a slap in the face.

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language stuff

Learning Chinese: The Importance of Tones

The word for “mom” in Mandarin is , in the first tone (high pitch). And the word for “horse” is , in the 3rd tone (falling-rising pitch). An American friend of mine once tried to insult someone in Mandarin by suggesting inappropriate behaviors to another guy’s mom. But he inadvertently proclaimed himself to be a horse lover instead. It was quite embarrassing.

Learning the tones in Mandarin is crucial. The number of sounds in the Chinese vocabulary is absurdly tiny compare to other languages. As such, tones are also used to differentiate meanings. For example, the word shi, using different tones can have over 60 different meanings! The famous poet Zhào Yuánrè (趙元任) once wrote a poem called Shi Shì shí shi shi (The Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den), which is a 92 words poem made up entirely of “shi” in different tones:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_Den.

But this shouldn’t be such a strange and alien concept as some Western students studying Chinese make it out to be.  Tones are just the correct pitches we use when saying a word.  Languages like Mandarin, Vietnamese, Swahili and a dozen others formalized them and make them an essential part of the pronunciation of each word.  But there are less strict tonal features in all languages.  In English, imagine saying a sentence like, “Hello, how are you?” in a different set of tones, such as using a low pitch on the “Hel” part and high pitch on the “lo” part of “Hello”.  Sounds ridiculous right?  When you use the wrong tones in Mandarin you sound ridiculous too, and some times it could even have a completely different meaning than the one you intended.  For example, instead of asking “Where can I buy some pants?” (zài nǎlǐ kěyǐ mǎi kùzi?), just by changing the tone of one word (mai), you could be asking for the complete opposite question.  “Zài nǎlǐ kěyǐ mài kùzi?” (Where do I sell my pants?” ).

There’s really only one set of correct pitches when saying a word in any language, tonal or otherwise.  Granted, in English it is rare to have alternate meanings to words with the same phonemes (parts of sounds a word makes), but with different tones.  It is much much easier to guess the meaning of an English phrase even if the pitches aren’t said correctly.  So, next time you hear someone say,  I can’t learn the tones!  It is so hard and weird, my language doesn’t have this!  Just smack him or her upside the head and point out this fact.  Learning the tones is just like learning the correct pitch of each word, and it is important in any language, not just Mandarin.

Here are the 4 tones in Mandarin (not including the Neutral tone).  Learn them well.  Like everything else, practice makes perfect!

It can be frustrating at first, but keep at it.  Your ears will eventually grow accustomed to picking up the different tones if you keep on practicing.  I’ve mentioned before, the human brain is wired to learn languages naturally.  It’s just a matter of time and continual usage until those neuro pathways are formed and fortified. Until then,  努力加油!  (Nǔlì jiāyóu!)

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language stuff

So You Want to Learn Chinese

As kids, my brother, sister and I knew how to speak both Vietnamese and Cantonese growing up in Vietnam as Chinese immigrants. And instinctively we always knew they were separate languages, without having anyone really explained to us the intricacies of being bilingual. When we moved to the U.S., we picked up English easily, and were speaking English to each other after only a few years.  We were trilingual by age ten not because we’re super smart or anything (believe me my brother can be such an idiot sometimes). It was because we didn’t view it as a difficult task. We just saw it as learning a different variations of something we already knew.

The biggest obstacle you will face when learning another language is yourself. I’ve met so many students creating hurdles in their minds thinking that learning Mandarin is this monumental task, akin to rocket science! But it really isn’t. As many astute observers have pointed out, Mandarin isn’t hard … 1.6 billion Chinese people speak it everyday!

Words represent meanings, that’s all they are. Tools for our brain to put labels on objects and ideas. Language is the building blocks of thoughts, a trick invented by men to facilitate the sharing of our experiences. At the fundamental level, we’re just agreeing on the same sets of symbols and utterances to convey the same thoughts, it really doesn’t matter what language they are in. Even with English alone we can have many different words to represent the same meaning. Father, papa, dad are some examples. You can easily add baba in Mandarin or padre in Spanish to that list. Thinking about languages this way will help you overcome that hurdle of thinking that a foreign language is this alien unattainable thing.



Now for our first tip, try not to translate a Chinese word to your native language before deriving the meaning from it. I know you do it, we all do. When learning a new language as adults, often times we do these mental tricks to help us remember new words more quickly. Get rid of that middle layer! When we learn our first language as kids, we had to attribute direct meanings to each word we learn. Be a kid again. Think of an image or an experience when you hear or see a Chinese word, not your native language counterpart. Granted, this isn’t very easy, especially at first, so it’s okay to use this mnemonic trick sparingly as crutches. But do strive toward the ultimate goal of ridding yourself of that extra layer and you’ll find the retention rate much higher than before.

And practice, practice, practice. Even if you’ve only started learning for a short period of time, it’s never too early to start using what you’ve already learned. Our brains are wired to naturally pick up a language, but it doesn’t magically happen overnight. Form those neuro-pathways! Make them stick! Next month we will dive into the fun aspects of the Chinese language. And by “fun”, I mean, WhatTheFreak!? Why is this language so weird!?

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language stuff work stuff

Teaching English, part 2, tips and tricks

< Read part 1 of my teaching adventures

Kids are harder to teach than adults.  Their attention spans are shorter, they are not very obedient, and often times they’re forced to be there by their parents to sit in a dreary classroom instead of playing outside with their friends.  It is one of the toughest things I’ve had to do.

But, despite my rants on how tough it is to teach little kids, I hope you can tell that I actually love it.  Sure you’re drained by the end of the class, but afterwards it feels so rewarding you wouldn’t mind doing it all over again.

Recently I picked up two tutoring gigs from a school call Tomi’s English, a one-on-one tutoring school by day and a bar by night.  I don’t make much money from these gigs since I only teach one hour a day, four days a week, but I wanted the experience and figured it would be fun.  Also, the knowledge I gain from teaching these kids will help us make our English learning website better.  Hey!  Free beta testers!

One of my students is a five-year-old girl who is extremely shy but extremely intelligent.  She is also very obedient and enthusiastic about learning English.  I have a blast teaching her every time, because of how quickly she learns and how easy going the classes are.  Right now her English is probably better than all the first-graders in all of Xi’an, and she’s still only in Kindergarten.

Now compare that with my other student, a 6-year-old boy spoiled by his rich parents, who has his own study room and his own iPad and countless toys and distractions vying for his attention, I learned that the teaching experience varies widely from kid to kid.  This boy is a hyperactive machine on legs.  His attention span is less than five minutes, and to top it off he isn’t very obedient at all.  I can’t get him to sit still long enough to go through a proper lesson.  But he is also extremely intelligent, and I think he gets bored easily because of it.  Sometimes short attention spans doesn’t indicate ADHD, it just means the kid is bored with what you’re teaching him.  So I’d had to invent quite a few tricks to get him to learn.

Make learning fun, use games and activities to hold their attention

Kids get bored easily, you can’t just go through a lesson in a book and expect them to stay focused.  Best way to keep their attention is when you’re doing something fun together.  Here are some activities we’ve done.

1. Hands-on activities.  Kids love making stuff and doing stuff, such as drawing and coloring and cutting shapes out of construction paper.  I bring a set of “tools” that includes construction paper, color pencils and crayons, safe plastic scissors, glue-sticks, and masking tape.

Have them learn their shapes and colors by cutting them out of construction paper.  All kids like to draw, so do some drawing activities with them.  They also love being to choose what they like, so ask them to pick their favorite colors and ask them to draw their favorite animal or some other objects.  You can write the English word on the page after they’ve drawn it, teaching them the written version of the word.

2. Play games with them.  For example, I teach numbers by playing Bingo with my students.  I have an iPad app that chooses and calls out the numbers, but you can easily make them out of construction paper.  There are free bingo card generators online you can use to print out your game cards.  If the kid’s number knowledge is only up to ten, read out the numbers higher than ten individually, say two, one instead of twenty-one until they start to get the concept of the higher numbers.

3. Reading is essential.  If you want the kid to retain their English vocabulary, you have to teach them the written version of the word.  Just being able to hear it and say it isn’t enough.  The best way to teach the written language is to read story books to them.  My favorite books are Dr. Seuss books, because they’re fun, simple, and they rhyme!  Kids love rhyming stuff!

But don’t just read to them straight out, have them interact with you as you go through the book.  Ask them questions, make them repeat a particularly fun sentence in a funny voice.  The key is to keep them engaged.  You can pick a random word and ask them to spell out each letters, saying the sound equivalent of each letter at the same time.  Huh-H!  Aah-A!  Tuh-T.  Hat!  Once you’ve done it enough they’ll start to get the concept of reading and recognizing the printed words.

4. Sing!  Most kids love singing.  Some kids are too shy to sing, but they almost always love to hear it.  The human brain is just naturally drawn to music, and singing is the best trick to help them learn new words.  I like to teach The Itsy-Bitsy Spider and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  You can write the lyrics down in huge letters on pieces of paper and point to the words as you sing with them.  You can also make it fun by doing the corresponding dance with each song.  Make up your own if the song doesn’t have a traditional dance associated with it.  🙂

5. Cater to the kid.  The personalities of each of your student varies greatly, but if you can afford to teach them one-on-one, or spend a little bit of individual time with them in a classroom setting, you can use what they like to gain their enthusiasm.

The boy student likes Thomas the Engine, so I read Thomas the Engine books to him and show him Thomas the Engine videos on my iPad.  The girl student likes Disney princesses, so I teach her Disney songs like Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid and A Whole New World from Aladin.

6. Everyone loves taking pictures and videos.  One trick I learned is to use my iPhone to get them to act out the lessons I want them to learn.  This particular video I’m particularly proud of, because I didn’t think the kid learned anything at all from our lesson.  He was always running to his computer trying to play video games or play with his toys as I tried to teach him the words.  But then he surprised me by showing me how much he learned.

There are a million ways to teach a kid.  Just experiment with different methods until you find the ones that work for your students.  And remember to keep learning fun!

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language stuff work stuff

Teaching English to Chinese kids

I thought teaching English would be easy. Holy Cheesestick it’s harder than trying to put a sweater on a wild panda! At least that’s how I feel after the recent stint at the J Plus English school and the tutoring lessons I’ve done here in Xi’an. Kids are like monsters on little legs!

Granted, I’ve never taught this age group before, but how hard can it be? I thought.  A few weeks ago I answered the plea of a desperate friend in need of a substitute teacher, he couldn’t make it to class that weekend due to the flooding in his town. They would pay me 100 kuai an hour, I would teach classes of 4 to 7 year-old kids for a few hours each day. Cake walk, I thought.

Nothing went as planned. I had a whole lesson in mind when I walked in to the classroom, and managed to get through about 10 minutes of it before the classroom became a circus of clowning kids vying for attention. First, it was questions after questions of, Are you Chinese? Why are you from the U.S. when you look like you’re Chinese? To … “Look at me teacher look what I can do”!  Luckily, the experienced assistants knew what they were doing and were there to dig me out of the hole before things got out of hand. I would be strung up like Gulliver and his little people otherwise.

They did warn me not to be too nice, or they’d walk all over me.   But I couldn’t help it, how could you be stern to these adorable kids?

I reviewed their ABC’s by using The Body Language Alphabet Dance, imitating each letter with my arms and legs.  I taught them how to sing the Itsy-Bitsy-Spider Went Up the Water Sprout song. I had them pick their favorite colors from the box of crayons I brought, drew pictures of bears and cars and houses, played hot potato while counting up, played Hangman with the older classes, and read them the story of Sleeping Beauty and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.  We must’ve done a million things.  I swear Einstein’s theory of relative kicked into full gear, as the speed at which time passes was proportional to the hyperactivity of the kids.  I was drained by the end of the first class.

I did enjoy reading the stories to them as they gathered around huddled on the cushioned mat floor.  You don’t get the same enraptured attentiveness from your adult friends.  They were all wondering why the princess was so stupid she let an ugly old hag pricked her with a spinning wheel.

They also taught me this joke:

What kind of “ma” (horse) has only two legs?
Answer: ObaMA!  Ahahahahaa!

At the end of the second day, a little girl and her mom came up to me to say their goodbyes.   The girl tugged at her mom’s dress, she had something to tell me but she was too shy so she was making her mom do it.  The mom said, “She wanted to ask if you will come back next week to teach the class.”  I told them I didn’t know, it depends on if the school still needed me or not.  Then the little girl said something quietly to her mom.  The Mom repeated it to me, “She said she wanted you to come back because she really likes you.”  And then the little girl ran away.  That was so sweet, but it broke my heart knowing that I would probably not be back anytime soon.

> Read part 2 of my teaching adventures

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language stuff

Language Exchange Meetup

Recently I joined an online community (talkxian.com) that is geared toward English speakers living in Xi’an.   There are both expats and locals visiting the site, bantering and helping each other out on the online forum.   For the most part it is a fun and friendly community.

One of the things I missed from my Austin days is the weekly Chinese Language Meetup group that I used to go to every Tuesday.  It was a great way for like-minded language lovers to get together and help each other with our language needs.  I met many wonderful people through that group, they made my Austin experience so much more enjoyable.  Not only that, my Mandarin improved greatly because I had an outlet to practice in.  I miss you guys Austin Chinese Language group!

On TalkXian.com, there was a group created called the “Language Exchange” group, which I assumed was created to get people to come together and help each other learn a different language.  But they did not have regular meetings or organized events, which was what I was looking for.  After recruiting the help of some older members of the site (Thanks Ed and Rita Wendy!), we were able to organize a weekly meetup group that meets on Thursdays at various locations around town.

Here is a video of our second language exchange meetup.  We had a great time making fun of each other as they try to read the “script” I prepared for them.   Good times!