In Shanghai’s Changning Raffles City (长宁来福士) mall, there’s a new bookstore called Yan Ji You (言几又). Does that name strike you as weird? It should. It’s a weird name. 言 is used as a word by itself mostly just in classical Chinese, but then the use of 几 (grammar points here) and 又 (grammar points here) also don’t make sense. What’s going on?
It’s not obvious, but the name as a deconstruction of the character 设, as in 设计, the word for “design.” When you break down the character 设, you can break it into “left-right” structure (⿰) first, giving you 讠 and 殳. Then 殳 can be further broken down as a top-bottom structure (⿱), giving you 讠, 几, 又. But 讠 (the “speech radical”) is just a simplified stand-in for 言, and 言 looks way better as a stand-alone character anyway, so the end result is 言几又.
Fans of free language-learning app Duolingo have been waiting for a Mandarin Chinese course ever since Duolingo launched, way back in 2012. In the meantime, many languages with much less demand have been added, including Greek, Hungarian, Esperanto, and even High Valyrian. Could it be that tackling Chinese took a bit more thought then other languages (some find it challenging)?
In the meantime, a few Chinese companies have stepped in to fill the gap. The first was ChineseSkill, which unabashedly mimicked Duolingo’s method with its own app. It proved quite popular.
A few years later, HelloChinese came along, bringing various new features and innovations to the method. Then ChineseSkill and HelloChinese became engaged in a feature war which, one could argue, greatly benefited the users of the apps. HelloChinese (led by my former ChinesePod co-worker Vera) gained quite a following in the process, proving that a spunky little startup can totally take on a well-funded traditional company.
And now Duolingo has finally decided to join the game. It makes me wonder what will happen to the other two apps. Will they immediately fade into obscurity? Will they innovate more furiously, only to be copied by Duolingo? Will they evolve into something else entirely? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, it’s a good time to be a user of Duolingo-like apps if you’re trying to learn Chinese.
I haven’t tried out the Duolingo Chinese course myself yet (or any Duolingo course, for that matter, since testing out the platform with French, years ago). I’m not a huge fan of the method, although I recognize it has value, particularly for building vocabulary in an addictive way. It’s just not a “complete method,” as it may want you to believe. But hey, it’s definitely high quality, and free.
Has anyone out there started the Mandarin Chinese course? What do you think?
Update: Duolingo does indeed seem to have updated its platform to cover the challenges of learning tones and learning Chinese characters. See Duolingo’s blog post on the Chinese course for more details.
I want to share a WeChat account I’ve found interesting called 罗辑思维 (a little play on what sounds like “Logical Thinking,” since the host’s surname is Luo). It’s not a podcast about formal logic; the topic is all kinds of useful ideas and thoughts on modern society, with a healthy sprinkling of issues related to entrepreneurship. It’s well-suited to advanced learners, and it has the following key advantages:
Every audio post is only 60 seconds long (called 罗胖60秒). No “listening marathons” here.
Every audio post has a nicely organized transcript (numbered points!) just below it.
Yes, there is some salesy content, but the main topics are still interesting and the sales messages are short and easy to ignore.
罗胖‘s voice is clear and he is easy to listen to.
His material is a good example of Chinese content marketing, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It’s so hard to find material this is both interesting (to non-Chinese) and short, and this is one of the best resources I’ve found. (Please let me know what you think of it in the comments!)
I personally find all 8 of his most recent topics quite interesting, so here they are (no filtering needed):
Here are a few screenshots of those:
To find the WeChat account, just search for “罗辑思维” on WeChat. [Note: you’ll still find it if you search for “逻辑思维.”] There are also videos on YouTube and Youku.
Spotted this sign on 老外街 (“Laowai Street”) on Hongmei Road (虹梅路).
First of all, “xu” in pinyin is how you spell the word for “SHHH” (the “shushing” sound) in Chinese. It even has a character: 嘘.
Second, the translation “don’t be too noisy still get happy” is understandable, I guess, but let’s look at the original Chinese:
声音小一点 一样HIGH 得起来
So 声音小一点 refers to one’s voice being a little quieter. The “if” part and the “you” subject are implied.
The 一样means “the same,” but here it’s more naturally translated as “equally” or “just as.”
The “HIGH” in Chinese is not (usually) some kind of drug-induced state, but rather the “natural high” of just getting all excited and having a blast. There could be some drinking involved (think karaoke), but the emphasis is on the fun had.
The interesting thing here is that the word “HIGH” in Chinese is translated as “happy” in the English version. In fact, a co-worker of mine told me that she used to assume that the Chinese word “high” (sometimes written as “嗨“) was derived from the English word “happy” (a direct translation of 开心), rather than the English word “high.” (Who knows!)
Being a little quieter,
you can still have
just as much fun.
Not as much fun, though, right? (XU!)
Nov. 13, 2017 Update: a friend wanted more explanation of the complement thing, so here it is, copied over from Facebook comments:
Question: The example in the Chinese Grammar Wiki makes sense: 早上 五点 出发 ， 孩子们 起 得 来 吗 ？… but that is 起得来 not 起起来！
Answer: In that example, 起 is a verb, and 来 is the direction complement. You insert 得 between the two to make it into a potential complement, adding the meaning of “can.” 起得来 = can get up.
The same is true for HIGH, only the complement is 起来 (in this case, 起 is not the verb). So that’s how you get HIGH得起来. (This one is harder to translate literally, though… “can get high” would be literal, but misleading (no drugs!).) “Can have a blast” is closer to the meaning, but you lose more of the V+起来 literal translation. “Can get happy” maybe, if you don’t mind a little Chinglish!)
In the blog entry, I linked to one grammar point on uses of 起来, and another on potential complements. It’s the combination of the two that you need to understand to fully get this. It’s a little tricky!
“I see” is a children’s dance studio in Shanghai. Here’s the logo:
Can you read the Chinese name? Hint: the first character is not just 火. (It’ll be much easier if you’re already familiar with the Chinese names of some popular fairytales. Or even if you’re familiar with the Chinese names of Disney animated classics.)
In this case, we’re dealing with the name 灰姑娘, literally, “ashes girl,” which is the Chinese name for “Cinderella.”
Confession time! I think it wasn’t until I learned the Chinese name for Cinderella that I even realized that the “Cinder” part of “Cinderella” was a reference to ashes rather than being kind of like a cross between “Cindy” and “Stella” with a random “er” thrown in for style.
According to Wikipedia, the “cinder” part “has to do with the fact that servants… were usually soiled with ash at that time, because of their cleaning work and also because they had to live in cold basements so they usually tried to get warm by sitting close to the fireplace.”
Anyway, it might be easy to miss that the dancer in the logo next to the 火 character is part of the larger character 灰.
This list of issues comes from a Quora post about “the dark side of Chinese culture.” (Each point goes into a little detail on the original post; I’m just listing the points and the Chinese synopsis provided for each.) This list may come across as a bit extreme in its criticisms, but there is some truth to each claim.
Child abuse [referring largely to psychological abuse]. 打是亲，骂是爱
Disrespect for individualism, due to the “big family” culture. 大家庭绑架个人自由
Parents push their kids too hard. 望子成龙，望女成凤
Social Darwinism. 成者为王，败者为寇
Banqueting alcohol-enforcement culture. 强迫劝酒文化
Lack of sympathy. 事不关己，高高挂起
This list is a double-edged sword for non-Chinese learners of the language. On the one hand, Chinese people can be quite sensitive to perceived criticism from foreigners. Just reading out this whole list with an innocent “this is interesting, don’t you think?” is unlikely to get a neutral response because the list as a whole feels prettying damning of Chinese culture.
On the other hand, tons of Chinese people are concerned about these issues themselves (usually presented in less extreme ways), and presenting some of these issues individually and delicately could lead to some enlightening discussions.
One way to “test the waters” with a friend is to just present the viewpoint (just one of those Chinese sentences, individually) without any of your own commentary, and ask a friend what they think. If the friend gets immediately defensive, just nod in acceptance and consider the conversation over (no need for rebuttal). More likely you’ll get a tempered response, which leaves room for discussion. In this situation, I find a good strategy is to play “devil’s advocate” and argue the totally unnuanced, pro-China propaganda stance. (It’s not hard to play a convincing wide-eyed, naive foreigner.) Since very few Chinese people swallow propaganda whole, you are likely to get a sincere elaboration in response (“其实……“).
Perhaps learning to exercise a little cultural sensitivity while discussing real issues which touch on the “dark side” of Chinese culture is the way to avoid turning to the “dark side” of Chinese learning?
I get a lot of questions from absolute beginners about Chinese word order. “I heard it’s almost the same as English. Is it??”
It’s not an easy question to answer, but the short answer is: “fairly similar for simple sentences.” And what does “fairly similar” mean exactly? Well, I recently made this video to answer that question!
You could almost make a list of sentence patterns, starting with the simple three-word “SVO” sentences (e.g. “I love you”), and see the Chinese and English word order slowly diverge as you add in more and more complexity. That goes a bit beyond the scope of that simple video, though.
TL;DR: similar, but you still need to study it a little!
P.S. IF you’re wondering where I got that awesome t-shirt, it’s from here.
Psychologists at the University of Chicago made some intriguing findings relating to how language learners make ethical decisions. The researchers posed a classic ethics dilemma to the non-native speakers: would you push a person to his death to save 5 others from dying?
Studies from around the world suggest that using a foreign language makes people more utilitarian. Speaking a foreign language slows you down and requires that you concentrate to understand. Scientists have hypothesized that the result is a more deliberative frame of mind that makes the utilitarian benefit of saving five lives outweigh the aversion to pushing a man to his death.
Super interesting! (And fortunately most of us are not learning foreign languages to be placed in roles where we preside over innocent citizens’ lives.)
This immediately made me think of the classroom language teacher who might frequently do foreign language discussions on ethical issues. One could do this for years, thinking all of your students were heartless bastards and the world is doomed, without even realizing this effect was at play. Theoretically.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been working on converting the Chinese Grammar Wiki ebook into a print book for almost a year, but the work is finally done! You can buy the new print version on Amazon. It’s a hefty 2.2 pounds, and has 400 pages. And that’s just beginner and elementary (A1-A2)!
My staff and I were so happy to finally launch the print book that we promptly threw a party over it.
It was going to be a thick book no matter what, so I made sure we didn’t skimp on font size (the Chinese and pinyin fonts are a decent size), line height, or margins. The margins are quite generous. This is a book that you can take some serious notes in, if you are that type of learner.
One of the greatest things about this book, for me, is that the Chinese Grammar Wiki is still there, online and free, continuously updated. Students love it. But for anyone who can afford to support this ongoing project of ours, having an offline version (ebook or print) can be seriously useful.
Special thanks to the always inspiring Dr. David Moser for writing the Foreword, and my tireless content editor Chen Shishuang.
All friends of the Chinese Grammar Wiki: please help spread the word! We’re already working hard on the next book (I’d say it’s 75% done), and we need the support.
I found this sign interesting, both for the characterplay with the 南, as well as for the interesting font design (which, unfortunately, also makes it a bit harder for learners to read):
The top reads 江南 (Jiangnan), which is the Chinese equivalent of “Gangnam” (yes, as in “Style”).
The bottom hard-to-read part says 偶巴尔坛, a transliteration of the Korean word “Obaltan” (오발탄), which apparently is the best Korean movie ever made? (I’m a bit out of my depth on this one.) Anyway, don’t feel bad for not knowing what 偶巴尔坛 is as a Chinese learner!
I never imagined that collaborating with a musician to create a fun song for learning Chinese grammar would result in a love song to stinky tofu (臭豆腐), of all foods! But that is indeed what happened last week. Check out the result, from Chinese Buddy:
It’s a fun song, and there are two kids in my house (and even an adult or two) that can’t stop humming it. From a grammatical perspective, the use of the verb 要 with various objects is highlighted.
My input into the Chinese learning part of the song was:
Include 要, 不要, and 要不要 as well as a variety of objects
Try not to let the melody of the song “warp” the tones of the important words too much (especially “yào”)
Keep the tones as clear as possible, including the tone change for 不要 (bù yào → bú yào)
Include some “spoken” audio in the song
Yep, four checks! If you’re a beginner working on basic sentence patterns, I hope you find this song helpful. As for the stinky tofu… well, I’ll leave that up to your own judgment.
Do also check out Chinese Buddy on YouTube. There are a bunch of songs (mostly oriented at children), and the styles of the songs range quite a bit, so don’t judge the music on just one or two songs. Probably my second favorite song would the the Tones Song. (Yeah, I have a thing for tones, and also ukulele music, maybe?)
The original character is 省, which has several meanings, but here is “save” in the sense of “be economical” and “not waste.” Note that in the unmodified original character, the bottom part is 目 and not 口. Wenlin explains 省 like this:
From 少 (shǎo) ‘little’ over 目 (mù) ‘eye’. To 目 watch carefully, to use 少 little, economize.
The drips under the first two in the image are actually characters, which read:
建设节约型社会 Build an economizing society
(I apologize for the poor translation; nothing is coming to mind for a better way to render this in English at the moment!)
I’ve been dealing a lot with clients’ Chinese character issues, and happened to stumble upon this Quora answer of Brendan O’Kane’s to a question about the origin of the character 奶:
Chinese speakers believe a lot of things about their own writing system, many of them untrue. One of the deepest-rooted and most pernicious of these false beliefs is the notion that characters have meaning. They don’t. The Chinese language [simplifying here; feel free to replace with “Chinese languages,” if you prefer] was spoken long before it was ever written, and has been spoken fluently throughout its history by far more people than have been able to write it fluently. The modern components of a character are not a reliable guide to either the meaning of the character or the early forms of a character, and the characters that make up a word are not necessarily a reliable guide to the meaning of the word. A lot of the stuff referred to as “etymology” in Chinese would more accurately be described as “stories about pictures” — cute, and occasionally helpful for memorization, and sometimes even sort of accurate, but mostly no more truthful than the old story about the English word “sincere” coming from Latin “sine cera,” “without wax,” or about “history” being “his story.”
Lots of interesting ideas here, and Brendan is spot on. And although “Chinese speakers believe a lot of things about their own writing system, many of them untrue,” that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn much of what Chinese speakers believe about their language (and writing system). In fact, you kind of have to. That’s culture. It’s like learning about all the ways that “America” is “the land of the free,” even if you don’t believe that the U.S. is that great bastion of liberty. What a people believes about its country is important.
Still, you don’t take everything at face value. Brendan’s point might be a “there is no spoon” moment for you, though, if you’re ready for it.
The key point here is that no bit of language, either spoken or written, has a meaning that people haven’t given it. (For more information on where meaning comes from, read up on semiotics and semantics.) Furthermore, spoken language is primary. Written language is a technology employed by a society. Sure, it’s a special technology with special properties and all kinds of cultural power, but it’s not the language itself, nor is it inherently meaningful in itself. Chinese characters do not hold any meaning that people do not give them.
If all this sounds obvious, that’s great, but if you pay attention, you may notice that Chinese characters do sometimes seem to take on mystical qualities in Chinese culture.
I’m not trying to get overly philosophical or quibble over irrelevant details. The question for me is: what does this mean for the learner of Chinese? Here are a few points:
You don’t have to know the full origins of every character you learn. Sure, they are sometimes helpful for memorization, and if that’s the case, great.
It’s worth noting how many non-language-oriented native speakers, fully fluent and literate, have no interest in character origins, and have forgotten most of what they once knew about that stuff. And yet they are still fully fluent and literate in Chinese.
Since character meanings are neither inherent nor absolute, it’s not bad to sometimes make up your own little stories to help you remember characters. The key is consistency (so as not to confuse yourself), not factual accuracy.
Still, because characters are such an important part of Chinese culture, it’s not a good idea to make up your own stories that run counter to the standard ones that virtually every Chinese person knows, like the meanings of the most basic pictographic (人, 日, 木, etc.) or the simple or compound ideographic (上, 明, 好, etc.) ones. For the more complicated ones that most native speakers couldn’t explain, your own story mnemonics are safe to use.
This is a complicated issue with tons of cultural baggage, I realize. I’m happy to discuss in the comments!
I remember struggling with the unspoken “ifs” of the Chinese language. Sometimes what’s said is meant to be understood as a hypothetical, but there’s no “if” word to be found. You just have to get used to it, and it can be quite bewildering at first.
It was somewhat gratifying, then, to see my daughter struggling just a little bit with this same issue. She’s five and a half now, and fully fluent in Chinese for her age, but she’s still in the process of acquiring Chinese grammar. (See my previous post on grammar points learned by age 2.)
The context was that my daughter had done an especially good job of getting up early and getting ready for school quickly. The conversation with her mom went something like this:
You could translate the exchange like this:
Mom: If only you did this every day!
5yo: You’re being sarcastic!
This translation into English totally fails to reveal the source of the misunderstanding because I had to add in the unspoken “if,” absent from the Chinese original. The full sentence including the 如果 “if” would would have been:
Because my daughter didn’t understand that there was an unspoken “if” in the sentence, she assumed her mom was being sarcastic, since she was quite clear on the fact that she doesn’t always do a good job of getting ready for school quickly.
In actuality, the 就好了 part of the sentence wouldn’t really make sense without a 如果, so there’s essentially only one possible interpretation of the original sentence. It takes kids a while to figure out the intricacies of these grammar patterns, though!
It’s hard to succinctly explain what I mean by this title, because “character structure” and “character composition” are pretty much always used to mean “the character components that make up a character” (or, to use the more outdated term, “radicals”). But the character components would be the content. The limited number of spatial configurations in which those components routinely combine are the “character structure patterns” I’m talking about in this post.
Take a look at this:
If that’s not clear enough, let me break it down for you.
First of all, these “structural patterns” of Chinese characters are referred to as “Ideographic Description Characters” in the IT world, and each one actually has its own Unicode character! So you can copy and paste them just like other text (provided you have Unicode support), and even Google them. (Pro tip: Baidu them. Baidu Baike (Baidu’s Wikipedia) has lots of examples of each type.)
Here are those 12 Unicode characters:
⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻
The patterns ⿰ and ⿱ (and sometimes a combination of those two, one embedded in the other) make up the most characters. Here are some simple examples of characters that use the more common structural patterns:
My advice is:
If you’re learning characters, learn these patterns. There aren’t that many, and they’re useful. It’s also good to dispel the notion that character components can be combined in an infinite number of ways. It’s a lot to absorb, for sure, but it’s not an infinite number of options you’re dealing with.
If you’re teaching characters, teach these patterns (or at least point them out) as you teach the character components. Everyone teaches components, but it’s nice to add a little structure to the teaching of structure. Confirm the growing, amorphous familiarity your students are acquiring, and give it a definite form.
If you’re building a website or app, include these patterns. It’s not going to be useful to look up characters in this way, but if done right, it could be a great way to explore a character set, and self-directed exploration is one of the best ways to learn.
It’s a lot of work to create a new font in Chinese. Instead of English’s 26 capital letters, 26 lower-case letters, 10 numbers and a smattering of symbols, you have literally thousands of Chinese characters you need for even a basic font. But if you just need a special font for a logo or a book cover, it makes sense to put the design work into just the Chinese characters you need. And if you look at enough Chinese book covers, you discover some cool custom fonts!
Here are some covers with custom Chinese fonts which I discovered on a recent trip to the book store (Chinese title in text below each photo):
I suppose it’s possible that not all of these are custom-designed characters (they might just be fonts I’m not aware of), but they’re still pretty cool!
I recently got this as part of an email from my Chinese bank, China Merchants Bank (CMB / 招商银行):
In case it’s not obvious, for the “cute” fangyan (方言) flavor, the normal word 那么 has been substituted with 辣么 (a non-word). The tone stays the same, but the “n” sound is swapped for an “l” sound, which is common in some fangyan/regional accents, such as the Hunan or Fujian accent.
This has been a trend lately, and you see it a lot, both on Chinese friends’ WeChat Moments as well as in advertising. Here are some others you might notice:
灰常 for 非常
童鞋 for 同学
盆友 for 朋友
先森 for 先生
菇凉 for 姑娘
歪果仁 for 外国人 (appropriately enough, this one intentionally butchers most of the original tones)
蓝瘦香菇 for 难受想哭 (this one was quite the meme for a while)
These types of usages are frequently lumped together with other forms of “netspeak” (网络语), but they do share the special feature of swapping a character (or two) to mimic a regional accent. (Have I missed any super common ones?)
These can be especially annoying for learners, because a lot of dictionaries don’t list these slangy words. It’s a great feeling when you start identifying them on your own, but to get to that point, you’re probably going to need to have more than a few conversations with speakers of non-standard Mandarin. The ad at the top of this article just goes to show that even if you try to be elitist and keep your ears “pure” with nothing but 100% standard Mandarin, the non-standard stuff will leak in through the intertubes…
There’s a word 嘎 (“ga”) in Shanghainese (and other Wu fangyan) that just means “really” or “very.” Because it’s not standard Mandarin, you don’t see it written a whole lot, but I noticed it in two different ads in Shanghai recently (and one even has pinyin!):
噶便宜 – really cheap
Also, extra points for:
最WOW – “WOW-est”
嘎实惠 – really a good deal
(And yes, if you want to try using this adverb, you are quite likely to amuse your Chinese friends.)
UPDATE: Commenter Lin and reader Danny point out something I glossed over in the original post: the first ad uses the character 噶, and the second ad uses 嘎. Both are “gā” in this context. So what’s the difference? Well, the short answer is that since this is not a standard word (both characters can be found in the authoritative 现代汉语词典 dictionary, but neither list this meaning), there is no “officially correct” character for it. In my experience, however, 嘎 is more widely used, and it’s also the one my computer’s pinyin input prompts first.