Learning Mandarin: So what's Golden Week?

The biggest holiday for most Chinese is Chinese New Year. It's similar in stature to how Christmas is treated in most western countries. But the second most important is Golden Week.

This post could also be entitled:

Where did everyone in China disappear to this week?

Curiously Golden Week actually happens twice per year. Once is attached to Chinese New Year. The other one is associated with the National Day and that occurs on the 1st of October 1st. Up until 2007, there was a third Golden Week but that is now gone. It was replaced by an extra three public holidays at other times.

While the workers get only three days of leave during Golden Week, things are typically rearranged so that workers usually end up with 7 full days off. If you've ever had business dealings with people in China, you'll realize that it's hard (or impossible) to get hold of anyone during that week.

Most of the ongoing controversy around Golden Week is related to the interruption that it causes to normal business activity.

Somewhat like what happens with Thanksgiving for my US buddies, during this week millions of people travel all over the country to spend time with their families. It's always a hectic period.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.

Learning Mandarin: Tones are a significant challenge

Before learning a language like Mandarin, people might have heard that Chinese is a tonal language. But what does that mean exactly?

In Mandarin (as in many other languages), the way that a syllable is pronounced determines its meaning. Mandarin is typically regarded as having four tones, plus an additional neutral tone. The tones are numbered from 1 to 4. The first tone is a flat tone. The second tone is a rising. The third tone is a fall and a rise. The fourth tone is a fairly sharp drop.

I mentioned previously about keyboard input and showed what happened when I typed a syllable. Let's take a look at "ma" for example. When I type it, I get the following pop-up:

These (and others) are all "ma", but they have very different meanings.

Some just have different tones. This is similar to "lead" (the metal) and "lead" (what leaders do) in English.

Others have the same tone but different meanings. This is like homonyms in English. For example, lead (the metal) and led (what leaders did).

The pop-up doesn't show the tones but it shows the characters. The first character is similar to a question mark; the second is a horse; the third is a mother; and so on.

These are really quite unrelated words but notice that each of these three has the horse character within it. These are called radicals.

So the challenge with a tonal language is that you really need to get the tones right, and from pretty early on.

In English, if someone said "it contains lead" but pronounced lead like leed, you might work out what they meant to say, even though you might stumble a bit.

But my experience with Mandarin is that if you say the right thing, but get the tones wrong, people stare blankly at you. It's important to understand that if you say ma (3rd tone) instead of ma (2nd tone), the listener won't hear "ma" and mentally work out how you've screwed it up. You thought you said "mother" and they heard "horse". To them, they sound like completely different words.

Here's a great example from Wikipedia, showing the four main tones and the word "ma":

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.

Learning Mandarin: Entering thousands of characters on a standard keyboard

In earlier posts, I've talked about how many characters the Chinese written language has. Whether you are using simplified or traditional characters, you need to know about 2500 characters to be basically literate, yet there are tens of thousands of characters in total. So, given your keyboard doesn't have that many characters (and you couldn't navigate it if it did), how on earth do you enter thousands of different characters on a standard keyboard?

The answer is what previously was called "Input Method Editors". In Windows 10, it's just called a "keyboard" for a "language". When you have multiple input methods activated, you'll see a language element in your toolbar near the bottom right hand side of the screen:

If I click the word ENG, I see this:

This shows that I have two keyboard options at present. One is English (Australia) language with a US keyboard layout. The other is Chinese (Simplified, China) as a language, with Microsoft Pinyin as a keyboard method. I can either choose Chinese directly, or (by default), I can change languages by using the Windows key and the space bar. The latter cycles through your available languages.

Now let's see it in action. I'll open Notepad and then with the Pinyin option chosen, I type "tahenrongyi".  That causes this to be displayed:

The input editor pops up sets of characters that could be what I meant. I didn't type the quotes. It recognized the character breaks. Notice that the first three groups are the same four characters except for the first character. That's because the "henrongyi" part is saying something is easy, but the first character "ta" doesn't know which "ta" I meant. I could have meant "he", "she", or "it".

When I hit the number 3, it fills in the third set of characters.

Note that even though many strokes appear, I didn't type that many. I typed 11 characters, then hit one number for a total of 12 keystrokes. If I typed "it is easy" in English, I would have typed 10 characters anyway. Sometimes Chinese will involve more characters and sometimes less but it's quite comparable in total.

This is also similar for other languages. Let's add Japanese for comparison:

In Windows 10, I choose the Language preferences from that same pop-up menu:

Then I choose to Add a language, search for, and select Japanese:

I've mentioned before how Japanese uses many Chinese characters (called Kanji characters) and even the name of the language shows this. It's "NihonGo" in Japanese and "RiBenYu" in Mandarin, but means "Japan Language" in both.

When I then click Next, I'll then deselect making it my primary language, and deselect the speech and handwriting recognition:

Again, in Notepad, I type "arigato" and see this:

Note that it's also prompting me with what might be the end of my sentence. On it's own, this means "thanks" but the first option shown is more like "thank you very much".

Again, notice that this is quite efficient.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.

Learning Mandarin: Idioms are even harder than slang

In an earlier post, I mentioned how hard slang words make understanding any language. What's even trickier though, are idioms.

Online dictionaries describe idioms as "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words". We have many in English. For example, imagine how an expression like someone feeling "over the moon" would be received by a new English speaker. Or perhaps that someone "saw the light". Or it was "a piece of cake".

Image by Will Echols
Image by Will Echols

Chinese has these of course, along with a great number of old sayings that have current meanings.

Some phrases have meanings that make some sense but aren't easy to derive. An example would be 马上 (Mǎshàng). The first word means "horse" and the second word means "on" so it's literally "on horseback". Currently it means "as soon as possible". You can imagine that at some time in the past, sending something on horseback was the quickest way to send it.

Less obvious are phrases like 马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ). This is literally "horse horse tiger tiger". It is a phrase that as an adjective means "careless" or as an adverb means something like "so-so" or "just ok".

There is a whole category of such four character set phrases known as Cheng Yu: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chengyu

Another example of these is 指鹿為馬 (Zhǐlùwéimǎ) is to "call a deer a horse" and meaning "to deliberately misrepresent something". A wonderful one literally means "a frog in the bottom of a well". I'll leave that one to the reader to work out what it actually means.

Regardless, if slang is hard, idioms are harder.


Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.

Learning Mandarin: Slang is a Challenge for Understanding

As with all languages, slang presents a challenge for understanding in Mandarin. When understanding writing in a language, there are several steps:

  • Recognize which characters have been written
  • Form the characters into words
  • Form sentences from the words
  • Try to work out what was really meant

A good example of the difficulty in the last step is a word like "sick" in English. When you are first learning English, it's pretty clear that it means "ill". But various generations of teens decided it could also mean "really good". Think how confusing that is to a newcomer to the language.

I strike the same issue with Mandarin. While my mother in law speaks Mandarin, she doesn't use it much on a daily basis, and there was a cutoff point many years back where she basically stopped learning it.

By comparison, most of my teachers are twenty-something women in China. They speak very differently to my mother in law and this is where the impact is felt.

As a simple example, a word like "awesome" or "wonderful" could be expressed as 太棒了!(Tài bàngle!). Literally translated to English, the first character is like "very", the second character is like a bat that you hit a ball with. Baseball is 棒球 (Bàngqiú) or bat ball. The third character signifies that an action has completed. It's not quite a past tense marker but it's a bit like that. It might even make sense in English if you think of something "as a hit".

However, another common expression is 太牛了 (Tài niúle). Same first and last characters are used. Now Google Translate shows that as "too bad" but I've never heard it used that way. Generally, it also means "awesome".

Now, here's the catch. The second word means "cow". So the phrase really literally means something like "too cow". So you can understand the expression on my mother in law's face the first time I said that. There was this curious look, where she understood the words I'd said, but had no idea what they meant.

Slang is hard.


Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.

Learning Mandarin: Understanding Chinese Dialects

People who haven't spent time learning about Chinese often presume that there is one core language, and perhaps a series of local variations, much the same way that this happens with English and, likely, all languages.

The challenge with Chinese is that when you refer to "the Chinese Language", you are referring to a family of languages, not to a single language. There are many things that the Chinese dialects share in common (for example many can use most of the same written characters) but it's important to understand how very different the dialects are.

In English we use pretty much the same characters that the French and Germans do. We could even guess how many words would be pronounced (but likely get that wrong too), but being able to read English doesn't give you much help in reading French or German. The exceptions to this will be words that have a similar origin in the past, or words that have been "borrowed" from either of those languages. As an example, you might hear an English speaker say "adieu" and understand it as "goodbye" but only because we've borrowed it and use it within our own language.

Chinese has over 900 dialects. Many of the dialects are somewhat mutually intelligible to some degree. These are usually part of dialect groups.

Chinese has eight of these eight major dialect groups: Mandarin (Putonghua), Cantonese (Yue), Shanghainese (Wu), Fuzhou (Minbei), Taiwanese (Minnan), Xiang, Gan and Hakka. Each has many sub-dialects.

Importantly though, the really common languages like Mandarin and Cantonese share some common sounding words, but are largely mutually unintelligible.

In some cases, you can tell that the words have some sort of commonality in the past. For example, the word for Red in Mandarin is pronounced as "hong" and in my wife's Teo Cheu dialect , is pronounced like "ung". ("Teo Cheu" itself is normally pronounced closer to "der jill"). Clearly there's something similar there from the past, but if you heard one in isolation, you're unlikely to work out what the equivalent is. Other words are completely different. In her dialect, the sentence for "don't yell" sounds very similar to the Mandarin for "as soon as possible".

In the long run, I can see Mandarin becoming the core dialect and the others falling by the wayside, much to the obvious disappointment of the speakers of those other dialects. It will take time, but I see it as inevitable. Given the number of people the Chinese government needs to manage, a common language is essential, and they've made it clear that's Mandarin.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.

Learning Mandarin: Should I use Pin Yin while learning?

When anyone starts learning to read or write Chinese, there are two basic barriers:

  • Understanding the writing and how it's pronounced
  • Understanding the meaning of what's written

Now when people start to learn Chinese, it's tough to tackle both at once, so the usual starting point is to use what's called 拼音 (or Pīnyīn). Pīnyīn is a schema for Romanizing the characters, basically so they are familiar to people who use alphabets based on that, like English.

So instead of writing 我喜欢学中文, I could write Wǒ xǐhuān xué zhōngwén (meaning I like to study Chinese language). Clearly, for someone coming from a language like English, the latter is much easier to work with at first.

However, even though the letters look familiar to us, it's important to note that the pronunciation of them is a bit harder to get used to. For example, the is pronounced more like war than woe, and is pronounced more like she. Also, many of the sounds that are used aren't exactly familiar in English. For example cái (or 才) is pronounced closer to tsai than to kai.

Once you get over that though, it's certainly easier to get started with.

A big challenge though, are tones. I'll write more about them another day, but notice the symbol (umlaut) over the letter o in the word (which means I). This indicates that the word is pronounced with the third tone called 三声 (or Sān shēng). It's critical to learn to get tones correct pretty early on.

In terms of Pīnyīn though, my advice is to try to start reading the Chinese characters as quickly as you can. I remember clearly the day I decided to turn off the Pīnyīn on my learning tools, and just immerse myself with the Chinese characters. My learning accelerated at that point.

The exception to this however, is writing on a phone or computer. Pīnyīn is by far the easiest way to type Chinese into one of these devices. I'll also write about the different input editors for computers another day.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.


Learning Chinese: Who uses Simplified Chinese Characters?

In an earlier post, I discussed the difference between traditional Chinese characters and the simplified versions. What I didn't address in that post, is who uses which, and (importantly) which is best to learn.

The answer to this question is changing over time.

Adherents to traditional characters point out how much richer many of the characters are. Ironically though, there are characters that started more simplified, but which became more complex over time, and the current simplified character is closer to the historical one.

While the note on richness is very true, it's important to keep in mind why the simplified ones were created in the first place.

Many in Western countries will still see a lot of traditional Chinese characters displayed on signs, etc. This is for a number of reasons. One is that the calligraphy involved is a significant art form. But the other is that in the past, most of the Chinese diaspora (overseas Chinese) were from Hong Kong and Taiwan ie: regions where people readily traveled overseas in the past. Both these regions, along with Macau, still mostly use traditional characters.

Researchers in Taiwan point out the irony in simplification being introduced to assist literacy, yet the Taiwan region has a much higher than average literacy despite using traditional characters. Others question the measurement of literacy on the mainland, and many other studies however, have shown how much easier simplified characters are to learn, contrary to cultural biases.

It's interesting that other overseas Chinese communities like those in Singapore, Malaysia, etc. have already switched to using simplified characters. Painful as it might be for some (and it is painful and seen as an assault on cultural identity by many), I see it only as a matter of time before the vast majority use simplified characters. You can find more on the debate here.

My take on this (and I'm sure many will disagree) is that you have to look at what the Chinese government is pushing. One thing they are very big on is standardization.

With such a gigantic population, there is no other option.

And they've said that simplified characters are where they are now, and also where they are heading.

Now that's somewhat painful and confronting for those who grew up using traditional characters, but I see it as simple (no pun intended) reality.

One real challenge for this though, is that while the community might change over time, historical Chinese writing isn't going to. To read older documents, you will need to be able to read traditional characters. History is important, and even more so to the Chinese. It's common to hear:

中国已经有五千多年的历史。 (Zhōngguó yǐjīng yǒu wǔqiān duō nián de lìshǐ.)

This means "China already has more than 5000 years of history". While this is a claim that's often disputed, it is one of the items of pride you will hear Chinese people commenting on. They'll ask "how many years of history does your country have?" and proudly commenting on the comparison.

While the ability to read historical documents is important, most English-speaking people today would struggle to read English that was written more than a few hundred years ago anyway.

Today, I'd suggest learning simplified characters, and over time, picking up traditional characters that you need, as you come across them. Even in the regions that currently use mostly traditional characters, I'm sure that when people need to work or deal with the government, business, etc. that it will be increasingly done using simplified characters. My guess is that within a few generations, the move will be pretty much complete.


Learning Chinese: Can't we just translate between simplified and traditional Chinese characters?

Last week, I discussed the meaning of simplified vs traditional Chinese characters. I had discussed the differences in them, and pointed out that in most sentences, there are only a few characters that are different between the character sets.

So, it would seem that the obvious question is why we can't then just simply translate between the two character sets.

Ironically, it is the simplification process itself that has made this difficult.

It is quite easy to have a computer translate traditional Chinese characters to simplified ones. The problem is the reverse.

This is well-described in the academic paper Key Problems in Conversion from Simplified to Traditional Chinese Characters by Xiaodong Shi, Yidong Chen, and Xiuping Huang.

The first reason that this is a problem is that in some cases, more than one traditional character was mapped to the same simplified character. Let's see an example:

Each of these four characters:

Traditional characters
Traditional characters

was translated to this character:

Simplified character
Simplified character

as you can see in the main image above this post.

So when you need to translate back the other way, which character do you translate it to?

The answer is that you need context, and that's where over time, computers will get better and better than humans at doing this, but not quite yet. Here's another example:

Translate to traditional
Translate to traditional

This one is easy for the system as it knows that Táifēng (a typhoon) is a specific thing and knows which character to use.

A second part of the challenge though is also shown in the example above. Note that the name Táifēng is somewhat similar to the English word typhoon. That's no accident. It's what's called a 通假 (or Tōngjiǎ) which is called a loan word, based on phonetics, not on the meaning of the characters directly.

Loan words are very difficult to translate back to traditional characters because the only context is the loan word itself. These groups of characters often have little meaning by themselves.

For example, my name Greg is often written like this:

Greg translated
Greg translated

But now look at the meaning of the individual characters:

Components of Greg's name
Components of Greg's name

Note that "grid, mine, grid" isn't particularly meaningful on its own. It's only when the entire name is present, that Google Translate has any clue about what it means, and then it's only an "educated" guess.

As an interesting side note, it's also why a lot of westerners spend ages trying to find a suitable Chinese name, much the same way that I have Chinese friends who have chosen western names.

The most notable of these is probably Mark Rowswell (大山 or Dàshān) whose name means Big Mountain. That's more exciting than grid mine grid. If you'd like to see him telling an old Taiwanese joke (with subtitles), check this out:







Learning Chinese: What is Meant by Simplified Chinese?

In a recent post, I talked about the benefits I'd gained by learning to read Chinese, or at least getting better at it.

A curious question that I get from people sometimes, is about "learning to read Mandarin". I have to explain that Mandarin is a dialect (as is Cantonese) not a written language. I'll write more about dialects another time.

One of the upsides of learning to read Chinese nowadays is that it doesn't matter so much what dialect someone speaks, the written form is pretty much the same, well almost…

Chinese has a lot of characters. There have probably been upward of 30,000 over the years. Today though, the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters lists 8105 characters. That's a lot of characters to learn. I now know about 1900 and while I can make some sense of newspapers, etc., about 2500 is generally considered a good starting point for readers.

One of the challenges for people learning to read and write though was that some characters were pretty complicated. That might be ok if they are uncommon, but not if they are used regularly.

To improve literacy, starting in around 1946, the Chinese government decided to make some of them easier. A few hundred common characters were simplified as 简化字 (or jiǎnhuàzì). These are often also called 简体字 (or jiǎntǐzì).

Let's look at a couple of simple examples:

In English, we have collective words for groups of things ie: flock of geese, or pack of wolves. Chinese, however, has measure words (量词 or liàngcí). So to say "three fish", you say 三条鱼 (or sāntiáo yú). In this case, tiáo is the measure word for fish (actually it's used for many long thin things).

There are many, many measure words, but the most common generic measure word is gè. So if I said "I have a secret", I'd say 我有一个秘密 (or Wǒ yǒu yīgè mìmì). In that sentence, the character 个 (or gè) is the measure word.

But notice how this sentence looks in Traditional Chinese:


Look at how far more complex the fourth character is. Same sentence but one different character.

As another example, let's look at another long-thin thing that uses tiáo as its measure word:

If I say "one dragon", it's 一条龙 (or Yītiáo lóng) in simplified Chinese but in traditional characters, it's 一條龍.

You can see why they wanted to make the change. You might also wonder about why they'd simplify a word like "dragon" when choosing common words to simplify, but dragons are surprisingly prevalent in Chinese culture.

Anyway, nothing is ever all that simple. Now that we've discussed what they are, in a later post, I'll discuss who does/doesn't use them.

(More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_Chinese_characters)

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite is Tutor Ming. If you decide to try it, click here and it's a bit cheaper for you, and for me.