Learning Mandarin: Understanding Chinese Currency

If you've heard about Chinese currency at all, you might have also heard it called several different names. That's not surprising as we do the same with our money. While I might talk about the dollar (Australian, US, or other), and I might say "that's 10 dollars", I'm more likely to say "that's ten bucks". The same happens with Chinese currency, with the added complication that it has both Chinese names, and names that are used when referring to it in English.

Formally, the main unit of Chinese currency is the 人民币 (Rénmínbì).

The word (Rén) is the word for " person".

The word (Mín) is a bit like a member of an ethnic group but it makes the first two words mean more like "the people".

The word (Bì) is basically a word for "currency".

So this makes the whole term mean "the people's currency". It's often referred to in English as the RMB. So, it's a bit like how we would refer to "the Australian Dollar" as a currency.

Yuan is like Dollar

In Chinese though, when referring to an amount of the currency, the formal term used is (Yuán). It's a paper note as shown above but was originally a coin as shown here:

 

You can see it written on the coin to the right of the one. For us, this is closer to the term "dollar". So when a price is 13 of these, the words would be 十三元 (Shísān yuan) where 十三 (Shísān) is the number 13.

This name is also used in the financial markets at time, where they will refer to CNY (Chinese Yuan). I suppose they're following  a pattern like USD, AUD, etc. and RMB doesn't fit the pattern with the country name in the first two letters.

Note: Chinese doesn't have singular and plural words for this like we do.

Kuai is like Bucks

And just like we might say "13 bucks" instead of "13 dollars", the Chinese routinely say 十三块 (Shísān kuài) where (Kuài) is a less formal term for (Yuán). In other usage, (Kuài) is closer to "piece" or "pieces".

What about smaller amounts?

Chinese does have terms used for smaller amounts as well:

(Jiǎo) is 1/10th of a (Yuán).

(Fēn) can mean 1/100th but the value is so small as to be basically useless. I've never heard a person use this word in this way. They more often use it as part of a percentage i.e. 百分之百 (Bǎifēnzhībǎi) means "100%".

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 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.

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Curly Haired Company (Mandarin Companion)

I've often heard that the best way to learn any language is to spend a lot of time reading the language, particularly books. I really think that's true. So, given my interest in learning Mandarin (Chinese), I wanted to spend more time reading the language.

Now the challenge is always that until you know enough language, it's hard to read books at all, and if you have to keep looking up all the words, that gets painful pretty quickly too. I've heard that ideally, you want to already know about 90% of the words. You want to already know almost all of the common words and need to look up the words that are harder for you.

Now the problem with that is that most books that I could read like that were designed for children, and it's hard to keep your interest going when you're just reading children's books.

So, I was really excited to come across a series of graded readers for Mandarin. The first book I read was Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Curly Haired Company: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition) by Renjun Yang (Adapter), Arthur Conan Doyle (Author), John Pasden (Editor).

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers

I was already familiar with John through his previous work on ChinesePod.com. I gather he's been the driving force in these readers. The description of the concept is as follows:

Mandarin Companion is a series of easy-to-read novels in Chinese that are fun to read and proven to accelerate language learning. Every book in the Mandarin Companion series is carefully written to use characters, words, and grammar that a learner is likely to know.

Level 1 is intended for Chinese learners at an upper-elementary level. Most learners will be able to approach this book after one to two years of formal study, depending on the learner and program. This series is designed to combine simplicity of characters with an easy-to-understand storyline which helps learners to expand their vocabularies and language comprehension abilities. The more they read, the better they will become at reading and grasping the Chinese language.

For those who can read some Chinese, this typical page should give you an idea of the level that the book uses:

This book is an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story. In the book, Holmes is called "Gao Ming" (or Tall & Clever). I was surprised how much fun the book was, and how they managed to keep the twists and turns in the plot.

Bottom line?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Although I found it a bit repetitive and simplistic in places, I'd say that the level was perfect for me. I just had a few words here and there that I needed to look up, and, very conveniently, in the Kindle version, they've highlighted words they suspect you might not know, and you just click them to go to a definition, and you can return directly to where you were reading. I'll be reading more of these.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Note: as an Amazon Associate I earn (a pittance) from qualifying purchases but whether or not I recommend a book is unrelated to this. One day it might just help cover some of my site costs. (But given the rate, that's not really likely anyway).

Learning Mandarin – Exaggeration for emphasis – to Death !

Most languages have expressions that are really massive exaggerations and Mandarin is no different. One of my favorites is the way they say:

死了 (Sǐle) which is basically like "to death"

An example would be:

我饿死了。(Wǒ è sǐle.) which is literally "I hungry death" followed by 了 (le) which some people regard as "past tense" but really is an indication that a state has changed. This sentence basically means "I'm starving" and so the state change is that I wasn't starving but now I am.

There are several other common examples of "to death":

我累死了。(Wǒ lèi sǐle) lèi means tired. So this is really "I'm exhausted".

我害怕死了。 (Wǒ hàipà sǐle) is really scared to death. Curiously, Google Translate gives it as "I'm scared of death". I suspect they're wrong there.

While these work OK in English, a number of other common ones don't.

我忙死了。(Wǒ máng sǐle) Google says "I'm busy" but it's really "I'm really, really, really busy". We don't really say we're "busy to death".

它贵死了。(Tā guì sǐle) I don't quite get how "expensive" to death makes much sense but it's OK in Mandarin. This means "it's so very, very expensive".

它难吃死了。(Tā nán chī sǐle) is even stranger. It's basically "it tastes really bad".

我都急死了。(Wǒ dū jísǐle) Google says "I'm in a hurry" but this is more like "I'm really anxious" or perhaps "I'm really nervous".

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 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: Him, her, it, they, and them

In my previous Learning Mandarin post, I discussed personal pronouns and adjectives. Additional useful related words are:

Him, her, it, they, and them

Similar to the way that we have male, female, and other genders for these pronouns, Mandarin has the same concept but what's interesting is that the spoken words are the same for all of them. The written characters are different for each:

(Tā) is the word for "he".

(Tā) is the word for "she".

Notice that the right-hand side of both characters is the same but the left-hand part differs. In the male version, the left-hand is a squashed form of the character (Rén) which means person. You might recognize it from the Chinese currency 人民币 (Rénmínbì) which is literally "the people's currency".

For the female version, the left-hand part (known as a radical) is a squashed form of the character (Nǚ) which means "women", hence its use in "she".

For inanimate objects, yet another different written character is used:

(Tā) is the word for "it".

In English, we also change the words depending upon whether they are subjects or objects in a sentence i.e. He did it. I gave it to him.

Mandarin is easier with this because it uses the same words:

他做了。(Tā zuòle) is "He did it".

把这个给他。(Bǎ zhège gěi tā) is "Give it to him"

And finally, similar to last time, you make these plural by adding (Men) to the end, so

他们 (Tāmen) is the equivalent of "they" when it's the subject of a sentence, and the equivalent of "them" when it's the object.

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 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: Personal Pronouns and Adjectives

In English, we have personal pronouns and adjectives like:

I, we, you, your, our, my

So what are the equivalents in Mandarin?

(Wǒ) means "I". It's pronounced pretty much like the English "war". However, in English, a possessive form is my. In Mandarin, we use the same word as for I, but add on an indication that it's possessive.

我的 (Wǒ de) means "my". The de is pronounced a bit like "da" and

我的朋友 (Wǒ de péngyǒu) means "my friend".

To make it plural, there is another qualifier that we can add.

我们 (Wǒmen) is "we".

And just like before, we add to make it possessive.  So

我们的 (Wǒmen de) means "our" and

我们的朋友 (Wǒmen de péngyǒu) means "our friend"

The word for you is (Nǐ), the plural word is the same in English but it's

你们 (Nǐmen) in Mandarin. And no surprise that

你们的 (Nǐmen de) means "your".

Two Other Oddities

There are two other oddities that I want to mention today.

In English, we just have the word "you". Mandarin has two forms of this. We just saw

(Nǐ)

but there is another, more polite form, that's

(Nín)

It's often used to honor customers, people older than yourself, etc.

The other interesting one is the word for "we". In English, that might or might not include the person you are speaking to. It might include yourself and someone else, or yourself and the person you're speaking to, or perhaps also someone else.

We saw

我们 (Wǒmen)

before as the word for "we". However, if the person you're speaking to is also included, the correct term is

咱们 (Zánmen)

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 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 Chinese have a passive voice like we do in English?

In English, we can choose to write with an active voice:

The thief stole my bicycle.

We can also write with a passive voice:

My bicycle was stolen by the thief.

We could also write, somewhat awkwardly:

The thief, in relation to my bike, stole.

So the question is about whether the same thing appears in Chinese. And the answer is Yes.

Here is an active voice for the sentence above. It's closer to the awkward third option above.

小偷把我的自行车偷了。  (Xiǎotōu bǎ wǒ de zìxíngchē tōule.)

Xiǎotōu is the thief.

zìxíngchē is the bicycle.

wǒ de says it's mine.

tōu is the verb that indicates taken or stolen.

le indicates that the action has already occurred.

So what's this ba thing?

The curious word in this though is bǎ. It's the word that's like "in relation to". It changes the standard sentence order from:

Subject verb object

to:

Subject object verb.

Bei changes these to passive

To move to the passive voice, we can use 被字句 (bèizìjù) i.e. sentences using (bèi) instead of  bǎ. It then becomes:

Object  bèi  Subject.

The sentence then becomes:

我的自行车被小偷偷了。 (Wǒ de zìxíngchē bèi xiǎotōu tōule.)

This would directly mean "My bike, the thief stole". Properly translated though, it would be:

My bike was stolen by the thief.

And yes, that's passive voice.

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 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 Chinese have words for Yes and No?

I remember finding it strange when I was first learning about Chinese, that they really don't have words for yes and no. It seemed obvious that any language would have that. Now I think they're unnecessary words, and what the Chinese do is better.

If you type yes and no into Google Translate and ask for the Chinese equivalents, this is what you see:

But the translation of yes here is more like "is" and the translation of no here is more like "not have".

And this is what's different. The general approach when you're asked a question in Chinese is to repeat back the same verb that was used when the question was asked. So if the question is:

你有什么食物吗? (Nǐ yǒu shén me shíwù ma?) which means "do you have any food". Instead of saying "yes", the answer is either "have" or "not have".

And if you're asked if you like something, the answer is "like" or "not like".

This is really quite succinct and effective.  Yes and No are really quite superfluous words.

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 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: Will not Will ??

One aspect of Chinese that I love is how direct much of the language is. There is a particular pattern when this is really apparent.

We might say "Will you go or not?".  The Chinese pattern is:

你会不会去?(Nǐ huì bù huì qù?) (bù) is basically "not".

This is literally "you will not will go ?"

It's a pattern that I should be using far more often than I do, but it doesn't come as naturally to me.

有没有?(Yǒu méiyǒu?)

This means "do you have it?" but literally translated is "have not have?". (méi) is also pretty much "not" in this case.

"Is it or isn't it?" or perhaps even just "is it?" becomes:

是不是?(Shì bùshì?)

Again, this literally translates comes to "is not is?"

And sentences that are formed like this don't then need to end with a questioning word. This is where I still go wrong often. I sometimes write this like:

它是我只狗吗?(Tā shì wǒ zhǐ gǒu ma?)

Literally, this is "it is my dog" followed by the particle (ma) which tends to make a sentence into a question.

Instead, I should be writing the cleaner:

是不是我只狗?(Shì bùshì wǒ zhǐ gǒu?)

As a note, in that sentence (zhǐ ) is a measure word for dogs.

Lastly, Chinese has other question particles but (ma) is the most common. It's similar in importance and usage to (ka) in Japanese.

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 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: Counting Aunties

My wife is of Chinese descent. She actually speaks a Chinese dialect (not Mandarin). Locally, that's often called Teochew but it's better known to Chinese as 潮州话 (Cháozhōu huà which means tidal region language), or perhaps 潮汕话 (Cháoshàn huà).

I'm (very) slowly learning some Teochew. Even though it's typically written as Teochew, when I hear speakers of it pronounce it, the name sounds more like "der jill".

Counting aunties

When we were getting married, I noticed the long list of aunties and uncles that were coming to our wedding. I remember asking her if they were all closely related. What fascinated me was that my wife said yes, but when I asked what their names were, she referred to them by number i.e. Auntie Two, Aunty Three, and so on.

That had me quite puzzled and fascinated.

It's because the way we refer to aunties and uncles with their given names (i.e. Auntie Jane, Uncle Tom), is considered very rude in Chinese culture. Aunties are ranked in order and one of the big concerns my wife had was making sure to refer to the correct auntie with the correct number. Getting that wrong would also be rude.

The Chinese word for Auntie is: 阿姨 (ā yí)

But not all aunties are really aunties

It's important to understand though that when you refer to Auntie in Chinese, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are related to you. It's a general term used for women older than you, and that you respect.

Many English speakers do the same. I grew up with a woman I called Auntie who lived next door to us but was quite unrelated. So I guess that's pretty much the same.

I also grew up using the spelling Aunty rather than Auntie but I did an online check and apparently, Auntie is now by far the most common spelling so that's what I've used here.

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 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: Two words for two

In an earlier post, I finished showing how to count in Mandarin, including large numbers and some of the odd features of the counting, like the way that Chinese say two ten-thousands rather than twenty-thousand.

But another thing that I constantly messed up when first learning Mandarin was the word for two. And that's because there are two words for two. I suppose that's not surprising if you think about how many words we use for zero.

(èr) is two and

(liǎng) is also two

(èr) is most commonly used for counting like one, two, three, and so on.

It's also used for positions:

第 二 个 (dì èr gè) means "the second one"

第 二 次 (dì èr cì) means "the second time"

But when you are describing a number of things (and using measure words), you typically use (liǎng) instead.

两 天 (liǎng tiān) is two days

两 个 月 (liǎng gè yuè) is two months

两 块 (liǎng kuài) is two pieces (of something – and can be money)

But there are always exceptions

I would have expected two o'clock to be the counting version but it's not. It's:

两 点 (liǎng diǎn) is two o'clock (I can only imagine that it somehow relates to two positions on the clock)

And even in numbers, 两 (liǎng) can be used, to count the number of hundreds and so on:

二百 (èr bǎi) is two hundred but 两百 (liǎngbǎi) is also commonly used.

Sometimes, mixtures will be used:

一千两百零二本书 (yī qiān liǎng bǎi líng èr běn shū) is one thousand, two hundred and two books

So you can be forgiven if it's not all immediately obvious.

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 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.