Understanding and conveying the proper tone of voice in a Chinese sentence isn’t easy. Some languages (Japanese comes to mind) allow you to “codify” levels of politeness or formality directly into the verbs themselves. Or there are super formulaic sentence patterns for certain levels of politeness. Even in English it’s somewhat formulaic (“Please,” “Can you…?”, “Could you…?”), but less so in Chinese.
I remember talking to an AllSet Learning client years ago about this very issue years ago. She was a mother trying to raise polite children, so of course she taught them to use the word “please” for requests, which in Chinese is 请 (qǐng). So she wanted her kids to use 请 (qǐng) for their Chinese language requests. Seems simple, right? Actually, it’s not at all, because while sometimes “please” can be translated directly to 请 in a straightforward way, in many cases it’s just plain awkward in Chinese, and even super polite people just wouldn’t use the word. To be natural in Chinese, you need a much more nuanced understanding of what polite speech in Mandarin is. And that takes time.
I’m curious if any readers out there have come across any books, textbooks, resources, etc. that are especially good at helping learners understand tone of voice in Chinese. It seems to me that it’s quite an underserved facet of the journey.
Oh, and for Upper Intermediate fans of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, at AllSet we’re currently working through every single B2 grammar point (we’re almost done with the “Parts of Speech” section of the big B2 grammar point list), editing sentences, adding/fixing pinyin, improving translations, removing “stub” tags, and even rearranging entire articles and reworking explanations. If you have requests or suggestions, now is a good time!
Here you have a pun on the word 这里 (“here”), substituting 理 for 里. They sound very similar.
So the punned sentence sounds like it’s saying “wealth is here” (a basic 在 sentence), but if you read the characters, it’s saying, “wealth is managed here,” using 在 to specify location. This is because 理 can mean “manage,” as in the phrase “理财” (“to manage wealth,” or “wealth management”).
But here’s another thing you might not know: in informal Chinese, 这 can stand in for 这里 or 这儿. (Same for 那 and 那里/那儿, but not so much 哪.)
That’s sort of an intermediate grammar point, and not super common. If you’re still working on basic question words, be sure to check out the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s article: Placement of Question Words.
As an English speaker, you may be tempted to think that “where are you from?” is a super basic question. Just 4 words, right? How hard could it be? Well, for this particular question, in the particular language of Mandarin Chinese, it can be phrased more than 10 different ways.
Before I get into this, let’s be clear: I’m not trying to say Chinese is super difficult to learn, or that beginners can’t learn it. No no no no. I may personally feel that the language is kinda hard to learn, but Chinese is not bad at all when it comes to sentence structure in particular. BUT, it’s not unreasonable for beginners to assume that the question “where are you from?” is super straightforward, with just one way to express it in Chinese. And it’s that little assumption that I’m destroying here. You may have to put forward just a bit more effort on this one.
The Swappable Words
A big part of the problem is that in the question “where are you from,” pretty much every part of the sentence can be expressed in multiple ways. Let’s break it down:
where:哪里, 哪儿, 什么地方, 哪个国家 So the first two are the most common and should be learned first, but you will hear the others as well, so you have to learn them sooner or later
are… from:从……来, 来自, 是……的 There aren’t one-to-one translations, they’re roughly corresponding structure. See below for more clarity here.
you:你 OK, this one you don’t have to worry about much, at least!
I live in Shanghai, so I’m going to pick 哪里 and stick with it for these examples. Just keep in mind that most of the others probably work as well.
你从哪里来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
你来自哪里？ (Nǐ láizì nǎlǐ?)
你是哪里人？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?)
你是哪里的？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ de?)
你是（从）哪里来的？ (Nǐ shì (cóng) nǎlǐ lái de?)
The Big “Where are you from?” List
OK, now let’s put all these words and structures together and see how many sentences we can come up with!
Wow, that’s kind of a lot. The good news is that there a few that are used much more often than the others. Different native speakers will have different opinions on which ones are the most common, and it’s also partially dependent on region.
The “Where are you from?” Shortlist
You’ll hear lots of these in China, but after I asked a bunch of Chinese teachers, the most common favorites were:
你是哪里人？ (Nǐ shì nǎlǐ rén?) — popular with southerners
你是哪儿人？(Nǐ shì nǎr rén?) — popular with northerners
你是哪个国家的？ (Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de?)
What might be surprising is that the question which most learners start with is not in the list:
你从哪里来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?)
你从哪儿来？ (Nǐ cóng nǎr lái?)
When asked, the teachers say that’s because it sounds a bit formal (same with using 来自). That doesn’t mean that a beginner shouldn’t use it, though… it’s still fine.
So I bet you want to just pick one, memorize it, and use it exclusively, right? That’s fine. You can do that.
BUT, that’s not necessarily going to help you when you talk to random strangers in China. They are going to ask you where you’re from, and that’s when the big “Wheel of ‘where are you from?’” is spun, and the gods determine your fate.
Rather than memorizing 20 “where are you from” question forms, go with your gut. If you just started chatting, and you hear a 哪里 or a 哪儿 (exception: taxi drivers!), and maybe a 国家 or a 地方 or a 的 on the end, just assume they’re asking where you’re from. This usually works.
Pro tip: Also be sure to answer in a complete sentence. Something like: “我是美国人。“. This way if you guessed wrong about what the person was asking, that person won’t be too confused by your answer.
I’m not saying you have to learn 20 ways to ask “where are you from?”
I am saying that if you are feeling frustrated because you’ve been studying for a while, but you still sometimes can’t understand the simple question “where are you from?” that there is actually a good reason, and it’s the fault of the Chinese language, not your fault.
Over time, you will get these. It’s just a little more work than memorizing one sentence.
Well, we’ve now done the extra work to make separate (parallel) lists of grammar points specifically for the HSK. It was a lot more work than I originally expected, but I think it’s going to be helpful to a lot of people.
Here’s how we explain the relationship between the levels in the book itself:
The current version of the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) dates back to 2010, and was last revised in 2012. It consists of six levels (1-6), and was designed, in part, to correspond to the six CEFR levels. European Chinese language teachers have reported that the correspondence, in practice, is somewhat different, with HSK 6 actually matching no higher than the CEFR B2-C1 level range. Furthermore, the HSK levels are used more as a standard for academic requirements (e.g. being admitted to an undergraduate or graduate program in China) rather than real-life application….
Our conclusion is that while both leveling systems clearly have their uses, it is not possible to equally accommodate both systems in one list of grammar points. That is why the Chinese Grammar Wiki has created separate listings for CEFR levels and HSK levels. We encourage test-takers of the HSK to refer to the HSK level lists, while learners focused more on real-life communication can benefit more from the CEFR levels. This book focuses on the HSK levels.
The HSK 1 and HSK 2 books are already on Amazon, with iTunes versions and HSK 3 soon to follow.
Plus, there are also new grammar points lists on the Chinese Grammar Wiki itself:
The name is 喝嘛, which is just the verb 喝 meaning “to drink,” combined with the particle 嘛, used to “express the self-evident.” This is a command, though. How does a command “express the self-evident?”
To a native speaker, the feeling of the two usages is connected, but here the word 嘛 adds the feeling of a somewhat whiny, “come on, do it….” In fact, that phrase “come on” (used when persuading) could be translated 来嘛.
So yeah, this product name is actually saying, “come on, drink our product. You know you want to! Come on…”
What’s the deal with the hippo? Well, “hippo” in Chinese is 河马 (literally, “river horse,” which is also the meaning of the Greek roots of the English word as well). So we’ve got a pun here.
It’s really been a ton of work editing, rewriting, and reworking all kinds of intermediate grammar points for the new book. The result, however, is both a solid book and better wiki content. If you want to support the wiki, please buy the book! (If you don’t need another stack of paper, I highly recommend the ebook. The instant search alone is really great.)
Special thanks to Chen Shishuang for all the work she did on the B1 grammar points, beginning years ago (not just one). (I bet there were times she wondered if the book was ever really coming out!)
AllSet staff Li Jiong and Ma Lihua were amazing proofreaders, and intern Jake Liu was quite a trooper as well. I also need to give a shout-out to wiki user extraordinaire Benedikt Rauh, who caught quite a few errors and emailed them in over the course of 2018.
Our designer Anneke Garcia did an awesome job on the cover. (If you need design services, I can put you in touch.)
For me, one of the best things about finishing a massive book like this is that I don’t have to work on this book anymore. (Maybe I have a tiny inkling of how George R. R. Martin feels?? Ha!) Sure, I love me some intermediate grammar, but there are so many other projects I can’t wait to dig into. 2019 is going to be a great year for AllSet Learning.
So there’s this word “skr” being used a lot in China these days, mainly by Chinese kids online. As with any popular internet slang, however, it has found its way into real-world marketing materials. Here’s a usage I spotted the other day in Shanghai:
So the part we’re focused on here is:
Which means, essentially:
This could be restated as:
If you’re trying to make sense of “skr,” it’s usually used to replace 是个 or 死个 (normally it should be the intensifying 死, as in the example above). The word has its roots in Chinese hip hop, and specifically the performer 吴亦凡 [Baidu Baike link], who is pictured several times in the GIFs below (red background).
This is a screenshot from a search of WeChat’s 表情 animated GIFs showing how popular “skr” currently is:
I’m in the middle of the 7-day Chinese National Day (国庆节) holiday, and I’m in the office getting some work done. I decided a while ago that it would be useful to make some videos (and I did make one), but I didn’t want the hassle of video editing (or managing video editing) on a regular basis. Turns out screencasts are really easy to do once you get them all set up!
So I’m doing a series of screencasts about the Chinese Grammar Wiki, and this first one explains how you can make use of keywords on the wiki for quicker and easier navigation:
The original image was written in traditional characters. Here’s a simplified Chinese transcript:
Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it at first. Some native speakers even take a second to figure out what happened.
This is a case of syntactic ambiguity. You can interpret the first statement in two ways, and it’s all because the verb 教, meaning “to teach,” can take two objects: who is being taught (what we think of as a “indirect object” in English) and what is being taught (what we think of as a “direct object” in English).
The other key is that in Chinese, 没有用的东西 (literally, “useless things”) can also refer to people.
So the joke is that when the student says “everything you teach is useless,” the teacher flips it around and interprets it as “everyone you teach is useless.” Then the teacher pretends to take the high road and says, “I won’t let you talk about yourself that way.”
Sometimes it feels like the environment is actively trying to teach certain words or grammar patterns. Recently I’ve been seeing this series of ads in the Shanghai Metro every day:
In this case, the pattern is a negative version of 为……而……. The pattern 为……而…… indicates doing a certain action for a certain purpose (apparently the red line is just there to emphasize “NOT for this purpose”). I discovered that this pattern was not yet on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, so I immediately added it: Explaining purpose with “wei… er…”.
The ads are interesting, because they come from JD.com (京东), which presumably sells sporting clothing and equipment (the ad mentions 京东体育), but it’s not made explicit what’s for sale. Furthermore, JD.com take a stance on values which seem to go counter to what a lot of young Chinese people are doing these days, and the values they’re advocating don’t seem to clearly lead to greater sales for JD.com.
The ads roughly translate to:
Exercise, not for your WeChat Moments [China’s version of Instagram]
Exercise, not just because everyone else is
Exercise, not to keep up with the trends
Exercise, not because of what other people think
Exercise, not for the selfies
(As you can see, it’s also challenging to translate the 为……而…… pattern into English in a consistent way. It would be nice to use “for” in all of them, but it just doesn’t work for some of them.)
There’s a certain type of question, phrased in the negative, which is answered entirely differently depending on the conventions of the language you’re speaking in. Take this English language exchange for example:
A: You’re not going?
B: No. (I’m not going.)
In English, we say no to the idea of going. Not going, therefore “no.”
Chinese works differently, however:
A: [You’re not going?] 你不去了？
B: [Yeah. (I’m not going.)] 嗯。（我不去了。）
In Chinese, we say yes to the statement itself. “Not going” is correct, therefore “yes.”
This is all fairly well-known stuff. Any English teacher in China is well aware of this issue, and hopefully anyone learning Chinese is as well. Even after you know about this difference, though, it takes some getting used to. You have to think about it for a while.
What I didn’t expect is that this seems to be just as hard for my bilingual kids. Both of my kids attend all-Chinese kindergarten, but I speak with them entirely in English at home. For the most part, they’re quite fluent in English for their ages, but occasionally Chinglish creeps in a little. How they respond to negative questions is another example of this: they respond the Chinese way.
So I’m constantly having conversations like this:
A: You’re not going?
A: You mean “no, I’m not going,” or “yes, I am going?”
B: No, I’m not going.
Not a big deal, but my 3-year-old is especially stubborn about answering these questions the Chinese way. He’ll get it eventually, though.
Still, if you’re feeling annoyed as a learner of Chinese that these are still tripping you up, you may take some consolation that even children, who supposedly “absorb language effortlessly like a sponge,” struggle with this. The big difference is that they don’t get discouraged, and they never ever give up.
My daughter is 6 years old now, and aside from yearly trips to Florida, she’s grown up entirely in Shanghai. Her school is a Chinese school, not an international or bilingual school, when means that I’ve had to make extra efforts if I want her to grow up bilingual. I’ve always practiced “One Parent One Language” (“OPOL”), meaning that I never speak to my daughter in Chinese, even though I’m observing her acquisition of both Chinese and English with keen interest.
Since she’s grown up in Shanghai and attends a school where Mandarin is spoken most of the time, it’s safe to assume that my daughter’s Chinese language skills are going to be a bit more dominant. For example, I get the feeling that she’s mastering irregular verbs a bit more slowly than American kids might. I’m not worried about it; her accent is fine, and she sounds like an American 6-year-old most of the time. I’ve certainly never felt she was making mistakes that Chinese learners of English might make. …until recently.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my daughter confuses the words “make” and “let” in her English. This is a mistake frequently made by Chinese learners of English. In Chinese, 让 has both meanings, and context makes the rest clear. In English, if you don’t get these words straight, your English sounds quite weird (and non-native). So I definitely took notice when my daughter said things like:
*”She was really mean, and let me cry.”
*”He always lets me laugh.”
*”What you said let me angry.”
In every case, the word “make” should be used, and the word “let” is used instead. (I’ve never observed the confusion going in the other direction.) She’s generally receptive to corrections of her English (she catches on pretty quickly when I correct her on her usage of irregular verbs, for example), but this one has been a bit more stubborn.
I’m curious: do any monolingual (or at least not growing up in China) English-speaking kids make this mistake? Or is it something particular to this situation? I expect it will works its way out in time, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing happens with my son (who is now 3).
At AllSet Learning we’re working hard on the follow-up volumes. If you’ve ever been an editor of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, use the U.S. Apple App/iBooks Store, and are interested in a promotional iBooks version, send me an email. If you’re looking forward to our forthcoming B1 and/or B2 volumes, and you’ve noticed any kinds of problems or shortcomings with the current B1/B2 content on the web version of the wiki, also send me an email. We need all the help we can get, and we’d be happy to thank wiki users for significant contributions with a promotional copy of those iBooks versions as well. (Apple allows publishers to share a limited number of free promo ebooks, but Kindle does not.)
I’ve teamed up with Chinese Buddy on a new song, and this time the grammar point is a very basic one related to saying “have” (有) and “don’t have” (没有). Besides Chinese language, it seems that our collaborations revolve around anti-materialism and food (last time was stinky tofu).
Anyway check it out, and show it to any kids you know learning Mandarin:
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 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.
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 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?)