Learning Mandarin: Degrees of intensity with adjectives

In Chinese, you don't just directly translate sentences like: "I am well" or "I am good".

Adjectives like "good" always have adverbs attached to them to indicate the degree of intensity. There are several of these in use. Here are a few common ones:

我很好。(Wǒ hěn hǎo.) is literally "I very good". I'm sure you've heard non-native English speakers from Asia use that sentence construction. Google Translate says "I am very good" but the "very" in this case is softer than it is in English.

我比较好。(Wǒ bǐjiào hǎo.) is literally "I comparatively good". Google says "I am better".  比较 (bǐjiào) is often used when comparing things. I often think of it as "relatively".

我挺好。(Wǒ tǐng hǎo.) is again "I very good".  (tǐng) is very similar to (hěn) but while in many cases, they can be used interchangeably, (tǐng) seems to get used more in oral language rather than written.

我最好。(Wǒ zuì hǎo.) is like "I most good". This sentence would be more like "I'm the best". A more common usage would be:

他是我最好的朋友。(Tā shì wǒ zuì hǎo de péngyǒu.) as "He is my best friend".

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

 

 

Learning Mandarin: Parts of Speech

In English, most of us know the common names for parts of speech, like nouns, verbs, etc. But what are the equivalents in Mandarin?

名词 (Míngcí) is a Noun.

(Cí) means Word and (Míng) relates to a name. That makes sense as a noun is a naming word.

词典 (Cídiǎn) is a dictionary.

动词 (Dòngcí) is a Verb. (Dòng) relates to moving, so a verb is like an action word.

形容词 (Xíngróngcí) is an Adjective. 形容 (Xíngróng) basically means to describe. So an adjective is a descriptive word.

副词 (Fùcí) is an Adverb. (Fù) in this case is a bit like "vice" when used for "vice captain".

代词 (Dàicí) is a Pronoun. (Dài) here is a bit like "representative", which is actually translated as 代表 (Dàibiǎo). So a pronoun is like an representative word.

介词 (Jiècí) is a Preposition. (Jiè) here is like "introduce", so a preposition is an introducing word.

连词 (Liáncí) is a Conjunction. (Lián) relates to "connecting", so a conjunction is a connecting word.

叹词 (Tàn cí) is an Interjection. (Tàn) in this case is a bit like "sigh". It's a bit rough, but I think of an interjection as a "sigh word".

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Is or Very

Before I started learning other languages, I'd always heard people saying that translating was hard, but I didn't really understand what they meant. When I was about 13, I was introduced to French, Latin, and Japanese. Now that's an odd mixture. I started to see the problems. Directly translating a sentence word by word leads to either nonsense in the other language or clumsy language.

For Chinese, I wanted to cover a simple example today.

In English, we might say:

He is smart.

The direct translation in Chinese would be:

他是聪明。(Tā shì cōngmíng.)

And yes, Google Translate does return "He is smart" for that Chinese sentence. But the problem is that the sentence is wrong. If you just reverse the direction of the translation, Google returns:

他很聪明。(Tā hěn cōngmíng.)

Literally, that's "He very smart". And that's how it's said in Chinese.

And if you've talked to, or listened to, Chinese migrants in the past, you may well have heard them use exactly that type of malformed English.

In Chinese, you don't just structure a sentence like

SubjectNoun is Adjective

That's fine in English but not in Chinese. Similarly:

SubjectNoun Adverb Adjective

isn't OK in English either.

(Hěn) meaning "very" is a common adverb but others could be used, to vary the intensity.

Incidentally, an adverb is called a 副词 (Fùcí) which is literally a secondary or auxiliary word.

Learning MandarinI'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Qixi Festival on postage stamps

I wrote my last two Mandarin blog posts about the Qixi festival and the legend of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl. I wanted to round out that discussion today.

In the West, we have a few tales like Santa Clause, and the Easter Bunny that seem pervasive. St Valentine isn't such a big deal, even though Valentine's Day is named after him.

People who haven't studied China much usually don't understand just how embedded these tales are within society, and also in the language. I see old tales appearing as idioms that end up meaning something quite different to what they say.

One place that I've seen Qixi appearing is in postage stamps. You can see one set in the main image above.

Here's another set:

Qixi postage stamp
Awesome image from youlai18

These are more recent but note the price hasn't changed. (Unlike our local postage prices)

Qizi postage stamp
Awesome image from youlai18

Learning Mandarin

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Learning Mandarin: Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

I'm following up on the promise I made in the my last Learning Mandarin post about the Qixi Festival. I said I'd talk about the legend behind it, and that's the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
(Awesome main image from qixifestival.com)

The Legend

Niulang was young and poor but he was kind-hearted. His biggest possession was an old ox. He's the one referred to as the cowherd. (I always hear them say cowherd but that sounds odd to me. I think they should say cowherder. He's not a herd !)

Zhinü was the seventh daughter of a union between a goddess and the emperor. She's even sometimes described as a fairy.

Curiously, the ox had a history. In some versions of the tale, it used to be the God of the cattle but broke the rules and lost the position.

Either way, Niulang saved the ox when it got sick, and in return, the ox helped Niulang to meet Zhinü who then fell in love with him.

Briefly happy

They married and were really happy. Soon they had two children: a boy and a girl.

The problem is that they married in secret because they knew that Zhinü's mother wouldn't approve of her marrying a mere mortal. After all, her mum was the Goddess of Heaven.

Eventually of course, Zhinü's mum found out about the marriage and was really upset. Celestial soldiers turned up and took Zhinü back to heaven. Niulang and his children went off to heaven to find his wife.  (In an odd twist to the tale, he'd killed the ox and wore his skin. Apparently that's what the ox wanted).

Just before Niulang found his wife, Zhinü's mum used her hairpin to make a river appear between them.

Celestial story

This story has a celestial story as well. The star Altair represents Niulang, and the star Vega represents Zhinü. The river between them is the Milky Way as shown here:

Awesome image from qixifestival.com

But where's the happy ending?

These stories usually have a happy ending, and this one's no different.

Niulang and his children were so sad that the magpies felt sorry for them, and flew up to Heaven to make a bridge between the two lovers. They could then meet on the bridge.

Apparently, the Goddess also felt sorry for them and allowed them to meet on the bridge on the 7th day of the 7th month each year.

OK, so not the happiest ending !

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Does China have a Valentine's Day ?

After I posted recently about boyfriends (男朋友们 Nán péngyǒumen) and girlfriends (女朋友们 Nǚ péngyǒumen), someone asked me about Valentine's Day in China.

It's not a simple question to answer. More and more young Chinese do get involved with the Western Valentine's Day (February 14th). Other Western festivals are also being adopted. Even though Chinese New Year is still the most important, many Chinese now celebrate Christmas (圣诞节 Shèngdàn jié).

Qīxì Festival

Traditionally, the equivalent of Valentine's Day is 七夕节 (Qīxì jié) or the "Qīxì Festival". It means "Evening of Sevens".

You'll also hear it referred to as 乞巧节 (Qǐqiǎo jié) or the "Qi Qiao Festival". That means "Beseeching skills".

The festival is held on the 7th day of the 7th month in the Chinese calendar. Because of this, you might also hear it called the "Double Seventh Festival". The naming of that is similar to the naming of "Double One Double One" for "Singles Day" on 11th November.

St Valentine isn't associated with this festival. It's originally from a romantic legend that's called "The cowherd and weaver girl". It telsl the tale of Niulang (the cowherd), and Zhinü (the weaver girl).

China isn't the only country with this festival. Japan has the Tanabata festival, and Korea has the Chilseok festival, based essentially on the same story.

The main participants in the associated rituals are young girls, and the original aim of the activities was to "pray for skills". At the time, they were talking about making handicrafts, needlework, and offering fruit sacrifices. That's where the "Beseeching skills" name came from.

There's a celestial aspect to this as well. The two lovers were represented by the stars Vega and Altair in the Milky Way, and another star forms a "bridge" between them. The "bridge" represented a flock of magpies in the original story.

I'll write more about the cowherd and weaver girl in my next post.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Boyfriend – Girlfriend – Characteristics that matter – Part 2

I mentioned in my last Mandarin post that over the years, I've found that you can learn a lot about a culture, based on which things the people in that culture think matter. I had a quiet chuckle when I saw the quiz in the main image above. In the previous post on this quiz, I covered the first four columns. If you didn't read it, you can find it here. In today's post, I'm covering the last two columns.

Fifth Column (Not as surprising)

The fifth column is 性格 (Xìnggé) which in this case means "character".

The choices are:

幽默 (Yōumò) in this case means "humorous"

可爱 (Kě'ài) is "cute" or "amiable"

安静 (Ānjìng) is "quite" or "calm"

认真 (Rènzhēn) is "serious"

Sixth Column (Expected)

The sixth column is another expected one. It's 爱好 (Àihào) or "hobby".

The choices are:

运动 (Yùndòng) can mean many things but here means "sport"

看电影 (Kàn diànyǐng) is "watch movies"

音乐 (Yīnyuè) is "music"

做菜 (Zuò cài) is basically "cooking"

 

It was good to see the choices in this quiz, even though I think it's a "politically correct" version of a quiz. Not that long ago, I would have expected to see "income", etc. in the list of characteristics.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Boyfriend – Girlfriend – Characteristics that matter – Part 1

I've found over the years that you can learn a lot about a culture, based on which things the people in that culture think matter. I had a quiet chuckle when I saw the quiz in the main image above.

The heading says:

你理想中的男/女朋友是什么样的?为什么?
(Nǐ lǐxiǎng zhōng de nán/nǚ péngyǒu shì shénme yàng de? Wèishéme?)
which means "What is your ideal type of boy/girlfriend? Why?"

First Column (Easy)

The first column is likely obvious:

身高 (Shēngāo) which means "height" (literally "body tall") and the choices are as expected.

Second Column (Also easy)

The second column is obvious from the English as well:

体重 (Tǐzhòng) which means "weight" (literally "body weight") and again the choices are obvious, if not just a little on the light side for many Westerners 🙂

Third Column (Fair enough)

The third column is 头发 (Tóufǎ) which means "hair" (literally "head hair"). The choices are:

长发 (Chǎng fā) – which Google Translate unfortunately translates as (Zhǎng fā) – same first character but different meaning. It means "long hair".

短发 (Duǎnfǎ) for "short hair".

直发 (Zhí fā) for "straight hair".

卷发 (Juǎnfǎ) for "curly hair".

Fourth Column (Surprising)

The fourth column is 眼睛 (Yǎnjīng) for "eyes". You might have guessed that eyes would come into it, but in Western countries, you'd guess the choices were colours like "Blue", "Green", "Brown", etc.

Not in this quiz. The choices are:

大眼睛 (Dà yǎnjīng) for "big eyes".

小眼睛 (Xiǎo yǎnjīng) for "small eyes".

单眼皮 (Dānyǎnpí) for "single eyelid".

双眼皮 (Shuāng yǎnpí) for "double eyelids" (literally "pair eye skin").

In the next post, I'll continue with the other two columns. See if you can guess what they'll be.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Horse horse tiger tiger?? Or perhaps not

I've found that one of the real challenges in learning Mandarin is understanding idioms. If you aren't familiar with the term "idiom", one dictionary defines it as "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words". In Mandarin, the word is 成语 (Chéngyǔ) which is literally "become" or "make", then "language". The term also applies to proverbs in some contexts.

A good example of this is the expression:

马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ)

Literally that means "horse, horse, tiger, tiger". But if you check the Google translation for that, you'll see it means "sloppy". From how I've seen it used, I'd put it closer to "careless". I've had feedback that it's closer to "just so-so".

But why?

The basic story that I've heard is about a painter who was painting a tiger and was asked to paint a horse instead. He was too lazy to start another painting, so he just changed it to a horse. When one of his sons asked what the painting represented, he said that it was "a tiger", but he answered "a horse" when another son asked.

Now I've heard variations of that story but it's a good example of an idiom. And note that most of these idioms are four characters long.

The trick is that most of these stories are already known to the majority of the Chinese population. They typically relate to well-known stories or historical quotations.

With 马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ) , I've asked about how often it's used today. I get different answers. My teacher and others say they use it in daily conversation, but I've heard others say that it's only new learners that ever say it. It's not an age thing. My teacher is in her thirties and has very current language.

Like with any language, even short expressions are often shortened again. You'll find the two character version 马虎 (Mǎhǔ) commonly used for "careless".

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Modern Chinese punctuation

One of the things that really surprised me when I started learning Mandarin was that the punctuation currently used in Chinese was so familiar. I was wondering how long they'd used the punctuation.

By the way, the word for punctuation is 标点符号 (Biāodiǎn fúhào) which is literally pretty close to "mark, point, symbol, number".

I spent 5 years learning Japanese many years ago and at the time, we learned to write it vertically, and of course that was from the Chinese doing the same. If you look at the following old writing though, you can see some punctuation:

Origin unknown

Someone has kindly rewritten that in clearer text:

Origin unknown

You can see the punctuation highlighted. Note that it's mostly used to break up sentences and paragraphs, not like we use punctuation today.

The punctuation that's currently used is from a combination of both Western and Chinese sources. The common items are these:

逗号 (Dòuhào) literally "tease number" is a comma (,). It's used much the same way that we use them, except for items in a list.

顿号 (Dùn hào) literally "pause number" is another type of comma (、) used to separate items in a list.

句号 (Jùhào) literally "sentence number" is a period (。) but note that it's a small circle, not a dot.

问号 (Wènhào) literally "question number" is a question mark (?) and used just like we use them.

感叹号 (Gǎntànhào) literally "sense sigh number" is an exclamation mark (!) and used just like we use them.

前括号 (Qián guāhào) literally "before include number" and 后括号 (Hòu guāhào) literally "after include number" are opening and closing round brackets ().  They are used pretty much as we use them.

方括号 (Fāng guāhào) literally "square include number" are both opening and closing square brackets 【】.

前引号 (Qián yǐnhào) literally "before lead number" and 后引号 (Hòu yǐnhào) literally "after lead number" are opening and closing quotes “ ” and are used like we use them, except for titles of things like books.

书名号 (Shūmínghào) literally "book name number" are used instead of quotes for things like book titles and look like this: 《 》

省略号 (Shěnglüèhào) literally "province slightly number" is the name of an ellipsis. Note that in Chinese, these are written with 6 dots, not 3: 。。。。。。

破折号 (Pòzhéhào) literally "broken fold number" is the name of a single dash (-). It's used like our dashes – often to add info to a sentence.

If however, you are connecting two things, a double-dash called 连接号 (Liánjiē hào) literally "connect catch number" is used.  For example:

这是北京—上海的火车。(Zhè shì Běijīng—Shànghǎi de huǒchē.) – Note the double-dash. This means "this is the Beijing to Shanghai train".

冒号 (Màohào) literally "risk number" is a colon ( : ) and used pretty much like we use them.

 

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.