The average person in China doesn’t go to a doctor’s office when they get hurt or sick; they go straight to a hospital. Then they have a pretty horrible (often all-day) ordeal ahead of them, involving paying to get a number, waiting to be seen, getting briefly looked at to determine next steps, then waiting in line to pay for tests or other services, then waiting on the results, then taking them back to the original doctor for a final diagnosis, etc. It really is a ton of time waiting in line to be seen by a person with (understandably) very little patience, only to be curtly passed off to the next term of waiting.
So when recently I visited Huashan Hospital in Shanghai (one of the better public ones), I was surprised to see these kiosks:
The big title on the wall is 智慧e疗. The 智慧 refers to “smart,” and the e疗 is a pun on 医疗, which means “medical treatment.” (Not even healthcare is above a good old “e” pun!)
The closer view displays the following words:
- 建卡 (jiàn kǎ) to create a card (and associated account)
- 挂号 (guàhào) to register (at a hospital)
- 缴费 (jiǎofèi) to pay fees
- 签到 (qiāndào) to sign in (for an appointment)
I didn’t use this kiosk, and it seems not many people did. Hopefully progress is just around the corner!
One of my clients recently shared this article and asked my thoughts: Learning Chinese: from gruesome, to good, to great.
I’d sum up the three main pieces of advice for getting Chinese to “great” as follows:
- The first is changing where you talk from, physically. (Don’t sound all high-pitched.)
- The second is changing how you breathe. (Focus on tones.)
- The third is changing the rhythm. (Mimic native speakers.)
Although the titles sound like incredibly difficult tasks to accomplish, the practical advice which follows (and I’ve summed up in parentheses above) is not at all bad.
Learn Implicitly When You Can
The daunting tasks above touch on one of the tricky things about the field of second language acquisition: separating what should be explicitly taught from what should be learned implicitly through exposure and practice. For the vast majority of learners, all three of the main points (voice, breathing, rhythm) should be acquired implicitly over time, and don’t need much active focus. (Almost all learners benefit much more from focusing on the main pronunciation issues they’re probably already aware of, and getting a good handle on those.)
Everyone is different, though, so it’s possible that some people in certain circumstances (such as actors, professional singers, etc.) will benefit from active focus on breathing techniques, for example.
I can give one example of my own personal experience with the one about “changing where you talk from, physically.” When I was working on my masters at East China Normal University (华东师范大学), one of my professors, Mao Shizhen, was an expert in phonology, as well as a voice coach for news broadcasters and the like. This was back in 2006 or 2007, and he once told me that my Chinese was quite good, but that my voice quality (I think he used the word “音色”) didn’t feel like a native Chinese person’s, and that to sound truly native, I should work on that. I later learned that I had a host of other issues I still needed to focus on to sound more native (most of which I’ve written about on Sinosplice at one point or another), so I didn’t worry about the “voice quality” issue or focus on it at all. Over time, though, my “voice quality” started sounding more and more natural due to increased fluency and practice. My Chinese may not be perfect or sound exactly like a native speaker’s, but I regularly fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker on the phone, and that’s good enough for me.
Explicit Tone Learning
An even better example to highlight the “explicit/implicit” difference is the tones of Mandarin Chinese. Most of us start out pathetically oblivious, and we really appreciate explicit instruction explaining what tones are, why they’re important, how to make them, how to practice them, etc. We want to know, and we feel that the explanation helps us, even if deep down we know that you could master tones simply by mimicking native speakers, just like a baby does. Unlike babies, adult learners can actually benefit a lot from explicit instruction. (They still need plenty of practice, though.)
Here’s the thing with tones, though: you need to learn the 4 tones (plus a neutral tone) well. You need to learn the tone change rules well. Everyone benefits greatly from tone pair practice, so you should do that as well (and that one will take a bit longer to really master).
But after you’ve hit the big three, you can stop digging deeper into the tiny intricacies of tones. Are there other, more subtle tone changes going on? Yes. Are all fourth tones created exactly equal? Actually, no. But these are questions that you can delegate to your (under-appreciated, underestimated) unconscious brain.
If you continue to strive to sound like native speakers, imitating their speech patterns as well as you can, you will get closer and closer to native as time goes on, and that includes implicitly learning aspects of the language that you didn’t even know you were learning. Have you ever asked a native speaker a question about their language, only to realize that you know more than they do about this particular aspect of their language (grammar, etymology, tone changes, etc.)? That’s because they’ve implicitly mastered the language and don’t need to be conscious of those concepts to use it fluently.
In fact, some of my proudest language learning moments have been discovering that I had mastered something without even studying it. This has included usage of certain words or grammar points, as well as tiny nitpicky details of pronunciation. Everything is fair game. Because you probably started out learning everything explicitly, it becomes a habit, and you may think that you’ll always have to do it that way. I’m happy to say that this is not the case. The better your Chinese becomes, the more you can (and should) learn implicitly, through exposure and regular practice.
So remember: you need practice, you need input. Focus on comprehension and imitating native speakers. You’ll learn a whole lot more implicitly than you think.
I’m not going to plug every single podcast “You Can Learn Chinese Podcast” we do, but then not every podcast we do has Dr. David Moser! For this one, I took over the interviewing responsibilities and had a good chat with Dr. Moser in our Shanghai studio.
We touch on a few topics I’ve covered on Sinosplice in the past:
(The jazz analogy part is new.)
And if you haven’t read this article by Dr. Moser, you should!
I spotted this new bubble milk tea shop recently:
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 might take a few seconds to get, but what you’re seeing is the character 内 on the left, slightly modified so that the character 外 on the right overlaps it on its left side.
Here’s an unstylized version of the overlap that’s going on in the logo:
So, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, you have “outside” both inside and outside “inside.” Meanwhile, “inside” is also both inside and outside “outside.”
This picture was taken from my office building (18th floor):
It’s a crew of delivery guys which have become an extremely common site in big Chinese cities. The yellow uniforms belong to 美团 (Meituan), while the chief competitor, 饿了么 (Ele.me) decks its delivery guys out in light blue.
I’m no expert, but I would assume they do these daily morning meetings as the only time these “co-workers” are even together in the same place. The rest of the day they’re on and off their scooters all over the city, speeding from restaurant, to home, to restaurant, to home….
I was struck by the use of the word 怕 on this package:
Literally, “afraid of being dropped” and “afraid of being crushed.” I’m more used to seeing 易碎 on boxes: literally “easily broken” or “fragile.” This struck me as interesting because neither the box nor its contents actually fears anything. It doesn’t feel like an anthropomorphic usage, so it’s got to be an abstraction of the human “fear” emotion.
When I thought about it some more and talked about it with some AllSet Learning teachers, I realized it’s not just a matter of the two kinds of fear “human fear” and “abstracted fear”; there’s actually a whole range of usage with this 怕:
- 怕冷 (pà lěng) to be sensitive to the cold (lit. “to be afraid of cold”)
- 怕热 (pà rè) to be sensitive to heat (lit. “to be afraid of heat”)
- 怕辣 (pà là) to be sensitive to spiciness (lit. “to fear spicy”)
- 怕生 (pà shēng) to be afraid of strangers (lit. “fear the unfamiliar”)
- 怕黑 (pà hēi) to be afraid of the dark
- 怕死 (pà sǐ) to be afraid of death
- 怕高 (pà gāo) to be afraid of heights
- 怕人 (pà rén) to be shy around people (usu. describing a child), to be afraid of people (usu. describing an animal)
- 怕水 (pà shuǐ) to be afraid of water (usu. because one cannot swim)
Are they just degrees of the same emotion? Or are they totally different usages? It can be difficult to separate shades of meaning, especially for native speakers. This is what the field of semantics deals with.
To me, learning how other languages construct words and phrases in both familiar and utterly unfamiliar ways is one of the major joys of learning a language.
When I first saw these ads, I felt that this woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her, and the Chinese name 汪可盈 didn’t mean anything to me.
I also felt like she didn’t look 100% ethnically Chinese, despite the Chinese name (and lack of English name).
It’s kind of interesting how her English name in the U.S. shows no trace of Chinese heritage, but when she appears on ads in China, her English name is not used at all.
Turns out that “Wang” is her surname by birth (her father is Chinese), and she actually pursued a singing career in mainland China as a teenager, using the name 汪可盈.
According to Wikipedia:
While pursuing an acting career in Hollywood, she changed her name to “Chloe Bennet,” after having trouble booking gigs with her last name. According to Bennet, using her father’s first name, rather than his last name avoids difficulties being cast as an ethnic Asian American while respecting her father.
Furthermore, she has explained Hollywood’s racism this way:
“Oh, the first audition I went on after I changed my name [from Wang to Bennet], I got booked. So that’s a pretty clear little snippet of how Hollywood works.”
The ad, using super simple Chinese, reads:
找工作 [(when) looking for a job]
我要跟 [I want to]
老板谈 [talk with the boss]
This ad is hanging in Shanghai’s “Cloud 9” (龙之梦) shopping mall:
First of all the repeating character is 鹅, which means “goose.” In the circular logo, you can see a little characterplay going on with the goose head.
Above that, you have “鹅，鹅，鹅” which, of course, reads “goose, goose, goose.” This is a famous first line of a classical Chinese poem. It’s famous because it’s so simple, so a lot of kids memorize it as one of their first (if not the first) classical poems committed to memory.
Here’s the poem in its entirety:
鹅 鹅 鹅，
曲 项 向 天 歌。
白 毛 浮 绿 水，
红 掌 拨 清 波。
And in English (source):
Goose, goose, goose,
You bend your neck towards the sky and sing.
Your white feathers float on the emerald water,
Your red feet push the clear waves.
The banner is an ad for a restaurant, 鹅夫人, or “Madame Goose.”
Pleco is a really powerful dictionary app, and it has a lot of features many people don’t even know about, such as the Clipboard Reader. This one is simply a part of dictionary entries that many people have never noticed.
Check out this entry, paying attention to the top and the bottom:
Note the bottom line: it’s an example of the word that was looked up, but in reverse.
I’m not going to give too many (and I’ll explain why below), but here are some relatively common examples of what I’m talking about which intermediate learners may encounter:
- 适合 / 合适
- 互相 / 相互
- 犯罪 / 罪犯
- 代替 / 替代
(Mouse over the above words for pinyin.)
Why “Words Containing (Reverse)” Is Useful
This feature is really useful because we learners so often find ourselves misremembering new words by reversing the two characters in the new words that we learn (and most words in Mandarin are two characters). Many learners I’ve spoken with think that it’s a unique problem specific to them, but no, I can assure you: this happens to most, if not all, of us. It doesn’t mean you’re dyslexic or weird; it just means you’re normal.
The reason it’s important to identify words that are also another word in reverse is that it can prevent you from going crazy. This is because most often the reverse of a word you’ve learned is just plain wrong, but not always. Yes, I can remember several times when I’ve learned a word–let’s call it “AB”–and then I hear the word “BA” used in the same way. So then I think, “Oh, I misremembered it. It’s not ‘AB.’ It’s actually ‘BA’.” And then I once again hear “AB” used in the same way as “BA,” but there has enough time in between the two that my memory of what happened before is fuzzy. So then I think, “Oh, I misremembered it. It’s actually ‘AB’.” Rinse and repeat. That cycle of confusion can go on for a very long time.
How to Use It Correctly
So to protect your own sanity, it’s good to identify the words that are another word when you reverse the characters. (Sometimes they mean the same thing, and sometimes they totally don’t.)
Note that I’m not saying you should study a list of these words. That would just create more confusion, and a lot of the words won’t even be useful to you. It’s just good to learn that there is a “reverse word” for the words you already know or have just learned (and you can use Pleco to check that). If the “reverse word” is useful or common, that you might want to learn it. It’s it’s not, then it’s enough to just be vaguely aware that it exists (and you can always check Pleco again if your memory gets fuzzy).
The only problem with the Pleco feature is that if you look up a word in the dictionary, the “Dict” tabbed section is selected by default. You need to choose the “Words” section and also scroll to the bottom to find the “Words Containing (Reversed)” list.