Learning Mandarin: Tone rules also apply

I mentioned in an earlier post that Mandarin was a tonal language and I described the four tones and the neutral tone. Well, while that's all true, things aren't quite a simple as that.

There are also tone rules that can change the pronounced tone for a word. Let me show you:

One rule says that if  you have two third tones in a row, the first character changes to second tone. (It will still be shown as 3rd tone in pinyin). An example is the simple greeting (literally "you good" but used as "hello") that is the first thing most people learn in Mandarin (although not all that many natives say it that often):

你好 (nǐ hǎo)

It's not pronounced with two descending and rising tones like the tones (both 3rd tone) would suggest. The first character is pronounced with a simple rising 2nd tone, and the second character is pronounced as expected.

One tricky rule deals with the character 一 (yī) that means "one". On its own, it's 1st tone. But then it gets messy. If the next character is 4th tone (a sharp fall), then this one is 2nd tone. But if the next character is any other tone, it becomes 4th tone. Here is an example:

一个 (yī gè)

The word ge is a general purpose measure word. But because it's 4th tone, yi is pronounced as a 2nd tone instead of its usual 1st tone. That helps to make the falling sound of the second character more emphatic.

Another rule for today is about the word  (bù) (which means "not"). It's normally 4th tone, but when it precedes another 4th tone, that would sound a bit odd, so it changes to a second tone. Again that makes the drop on the next character (which is the more important one for the meaning), more emphatic. Here is an example:

不错 (bù cuò)

This basically means "not bad" or more literally, "not wrong". Learning

Mandarin

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Learning Mandarin: Tones used in Mandarin

I mentioned in an earlier post that Chinese dialects are tonal. As well as words being different in different dialects (but often still the same characters), the tones are also different for different dialects. Mandarin is generally considered to have four tones or  声调 (Shēngdiào) plus a neutral tone. So, some would describe that as a total of five tones.

The first tone or 第一声 (Dì yī shēng) is often drawn as level but it's actually both high and level.

An example is  (Mā) meaning mother. The second tone or 第二声 (Dì èr shēng) is a rising sound.

An example is  (Má) which is a word for hemp. The third tone or 第三声 (Dì sān shēng) is a falling then rising sound.

An example is  (Mǎ) which means horse. The fourth tone or 第四声 (Dì sì shēng) is a sharp falling sound.

An example is 骂 (Mà) which means to curse or is a curse.

The neutral tone is both central and flat. An example is  (Ma) which is like a question mark. In the main image above (by Lufti Gaos), you can see yet another "ma". The second word from the top means "code" and is also 3rd tone. (The sentence basically means "scan code, use bike". The last word is more like "vehicle" but here it'll be an abbreviation of the word for bike).

It's important to understand that Chinese people don't hear the above words like variations of the word "ma". They hear them as different words.

Learning Mandarin

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Learning Mandarin: What is pinyin?

I've mentioned before that the Chinese language uses tens of thousands of characters. It's the same for either simplified or traditional Chinese. That can make it hard for someone learning the language, as there seems to be an endless list of characters to learn. You also might not have thought about it, but how do you type all those characters on a standard computer keyboard? The answer to both those questions is Pīnyīn (拼音). For people who are familiar with western character sets,  Pīnyīn provides a way to represent the Chinese words with familiar characters.  This makes it easier to type them on a keyboard as well. In the main image above, I told Google Translate that I was going to type Chinese characters. Instead, I typed the characters pinyin into it, and it showed me things that I could have meant. Here's another example. I'll type ma: It shows me the characters and I can choose which one I want by just typing the number. The first one is a horse, the second one is like a question mark, the third one is a mother, and so on. Tones are really important and while each of those is ma, they don't all have the same tone. We'll talk about that more another day. We don't need to enter the tone to find the character. While the Pīnyīn characters look familiar, and many are pronounced as you'd expect, you do also have to learn how to pronounce them. For example, the character is written as Xīn but is pronounced more like "shin". Additional characters also change things. For example, while  is written as  and pronounced like "chee", the character  is written as Qiě and pronounced more like "chair". There are also some sounds that we really don't have. For example, the character  is written as Céng but the "c" is pronounced more like "ts", so this is like "tseng". If you try to learn this, it won't take that long to get to a point where you can read Pīnyīn fairly easily. Because Japanese has a lot of Chinese characters (they call them 漢字 or Kanji), they also adopted a way of writing using our familiar characters. It's called ローマ字 or Romaji. It works much the same:

 

Learning Mandarin

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Learning Mandarin: Loan words can be tricky

In English, we often "borrow" words from other languages. The Chinese call these "loan words". For example, we might talk about a feeling of Déjà vu. Now we'll often write it without the original accents on the "e" and the "a" but we'll happily just use the French word in conversation.

Ironically, the French tend to do the opposite. They keep inventing words to fill in the gaps in their language. I've heard that this is causing them great difficulty in technical words and that their language academy is a long, long way behind in creating those words.

In Mandarin, a similar thing happens. And it's one of the things that confuses me when I'm reading Mandarin. Let's look at an example:

夏洛克  (Xià luòkè)

I normally read the first character as being related to summer. The second character is often a surname. It's also an old name of several rivers in Henan, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Anhui. The third character is typically used for the word gram.

So when I read this, I'm thinking "summer, some name, gram". And it's only after a while I pronounce the whole thing and realize that it makes no sense at all as written. It's all about how it sounds. In this case, it was meant to be Sherlock (as in Sherlock Holmes).

I find names quite tricky to recognize to start with, but these transliterated words are especially tricky. But they are used extensively. It's not always names though. Here's another:

巧克力  (Qiǎokèlì)

Again when reading this, the words are like "skillful, gram, force or energy". But the word is chocolate.

And another:

酒吧  (Jiǔbā)

In this case, the first word is Chinese for alcohol, but the second word means bar in English.

So when reading Mandarin, and the words seem to make no sense at all together, one of the things I'm learning to do, is to step back and pronounce them, just in case the meaning of the characters isn't relevant, and only how they sound matters.

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: East, West, Something, and Nothing

In Mandarin, the word for compass directions are:

East is  (Dōng)
West is 西 (Xī)
North is  (Běi)
South is  (Nán)

Curiously though, the Chinese don't say North, South, East, and West for compass directions like we do. Instead they say (Dōng), (Nán), 西 (Xī), (Běi) ie: they do them clockwise which is probably more sensible than us.

Awesome image by G Crescoli
Awesome image by G Crescoli

These directions are often combined with  (Biān) which roughly means side.

You'll hear 北边 (Běibian) as the north side (or sometimes more like locating something as being to the north of).  (Fāng) might also be used in a related way but mean more like in the direction of.  So 北方 (Běifāng) would be "in the direction of north" or perhaps "northward".

You'll often also hear them in relation to cities:

北京 (Běijīng)
南京 (Nánjīng)

The character  (Jīng) means something like the capital of a country or a region. So Běijīng is really like "northern capital" and Nánjīng was more like "southern capital".

And you'll hear them combined together, much the same way we say "northeast":

东北 (Dōngběi)

When they are combined like this though, East and West always come first.

But then the most curious combination of all is:

东西 (Dōngxī)

which you'd generally expect to mean East to West, and while it can have a meaning like that, it's generally used for "something".

我会买东西。(Wǒ huì mǎi dōngxī) or "I will buy something".

Not having it can also be used to define "nothing":

我没有东西。(Wǒ méiyǒu dōngxī)

is literally "I not have thing" would mean "I have nothing".

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: Chinese Medicine – Is there anything to it?

The Chinese have a very long history as a civilization. I'm frequently told:

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

or China has more than 5000 years of history. It's something the country is very proud of. During that time, they've developed a form of medicine somewhat parallel to Western medicine.

Before I really started looking into it, I passed it off as almost non-scientific nonsense. There are many parts of it where I still think the same, but nothing is ever black and white.

Western medicine seems to believe they always have the answers, and they mostly do. But many times now, I've been really impressed by the outcomes achieved by 中医 (Zhōngyī) or Chinese Medicine (often now just referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine to differentiate it), and the 中医师 (Zhōngyī shī) or Chinese Medicine practitioners.

I think the challenge is that the concept of traditional Chinese medicine covers many areas including herbal medicine, manipulation, acupuncture, diet, and exercise. I don't see all of them as being equally efficacious.

I look at techniques like cupping, etc. (which many people in South East Asia and others also use), and I just don't buy the arguments for it. Even if it does help, I'm sure it's for reasons other than the ones that they supply.

In regards to the herbal medicines, I see them as a mixed bag. I could imagine some helping, but others I really don't see as doing anything notable.

Awesome image by Ndispensible

But on the subject of manipulation (massage), etc. I have to admit to being a complete convert.

The first time I really saw it in action was shortly after I was married. During a drive south through NSW, my wife had something happen that left her with a really stiff neck ie: could barely move it. It was quite bad.  If I had that issue, I would have done one of these two things:

  • Just lived with it until it was better
  • Gone to a western doctor

If she had gone to a western doctor, she would no doubt have been given some anti-inflammatory drug to take, and she might have then slowly improved. Those drugs are also lousy in how they affect your stomach overall.

Awesome image by Rawpixel
Awesome image by Rawpixel

But my wife went into a Chinese doctor in a small town that we passed through. He manipulated her neck (which sounded pretty scary to me), and less than 20 minutes later, she walked out of his office without the slightest problem. There was no evidence at all that she'd ever had a problem.

Since that time, I can't tell you how many times I've seen something similar.

There is so much that we in the west do not know or understand.

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: What is Singles' Day?

What's the biggest retail event in the world now? Black Friday? Christmas? If you didn't answer Singles' Day, read on.

One thing that learning Mandarin has done for me, has been to open my eyes to many aspects of Chinese culture, but it's also made details of Chinese technology and business much more approachable. One curious business phenomena is Singles' Day.

Chinese Singles' Day was also called Bachelors' Day and had its origins back in 1993 at Nanjing University.  But Jack Ma from Alibaba really made this fly. He promoted it as a form of anti-Valentines Day. China has many unmarried singles who now have significant disposable incomes, and Singles Day is a day that celebrates their pride in being single. The date chosen was 11/11 (November 11 or as many Chinese say about this event "double one double one" or "four singles").

Basically rather than feeling bad that no-one is buying them something on a day like Valentines Day (which is becoming somewhat popular in China), it's a day where singles spend money on themselves. Yes, true consumerism.

From a business and technology perspective, Singles Day is fascinating. This year, Alibaba made their first billion US dollars worth of sales, in the first 7 minutes.

Read that number carefully. At the time, they were processing over 290,000 sale transactions per second. Nothing else on the planet comes even into the vicinity of that. And they ended up doing over $30 billion USD in sales for the day.

And Alibaba's rival JD.com also did over $20 billion USD in sales.

While you might not have come across Singles Day yet, I suspect that you will. In Australia and several other Western countries, it'll be slower to take off, as 11th November is Remembrance Day. But I am already seeing it happening even in these countries.

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: Heating and Cooling Foods

A few days ago, my wife and I visited a local restaurant that we quite like. It's called 秋月亮 (Qiū yuèliàng) or Autumn Moon. The lady who runs it has been very friendly to us. Before our meal, she asked if we wanted anything to drink. My wife asked for water but I asked for water and some tea (green tea). I wanted some water first, then I was going to change to drinking tea.

She looked at me strangely and said "No".

Now that wouldn't happen in most other types of restaurant. "I won't sell you what you asked for off the menu" wouldn't go down well with most managers.

But she immediately looked across at my wife (who is of Chinese appearance) and she said "You know". She was implying that my wife would understand that it was obvious that I shouldn't have a cool drink and a hot drink together. She was worried how this would affect me. It might upset my stomach.

This concept is pretty ingrained in Chinese culture, but generally they aren't talking about things that are actually "hot" and "cold", they are talking about foods that they consider "heating" and those that they consider "cooling".

This comes from teachings on warm and cool foods from traditional Chinese medicine. Ancient Chinese decided that a lot of chronic ailments that our bodies suffer is caused by an imbalance in our internal temperature and energy. They believe this affects our organs.

A whole range of foods is considered to be "warm". Generally they are foods that improve circulation and nourish our energy levels. This is everything from butter, chicken, and prawns, to walnuts and glutenous rice.

Cool foods are considered to "calm" the blood, clears toxins and reduce heat. This would include cheese, apples, bananas, and salt.

There are also a group of foods that are considered "neutral" like beef, milk, figs, and grapes.

Basically from birth, many Chinese are taught what increases or decreases "heat" in their bodies.

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: Assessing Progress with the HSK Exams

In my last post on learning Mandarin, I talked about how long it takes to learn the language. I discussed that like learning English, there is no real end point to the learning, only stages of achievement. So how can you assess where you're at? The answer is the HSK and HSKK exams. So what are they, and how do they match other definitions?

US State Department Proficiency Levels

The US State Department offers a definition of language proficiency here. It defines these levels:

0 – No Practical Proficiency (No practical speaking proficiency. No practical reading proficiency).

1 – Elementary Proficiency (Able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements Able to read some personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations, numbers and isolated words and phrases).

2 – Limited Working Proficiency (Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements Able to read simple prose, in a form equivalent to typescript or printing, on subjects within a familiar context).

3 – Minimum Professional Proficiency (Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics Able to read standard newspaper items addressed to the general reader, routine correspondence, reports, and technical materials in the individual’s special field).

4 – Full Professional Proficiency (Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertinent to professional needs. Able to read all styles and forms of the language pertinent to professional needs).

5 – Native or Bilingual Proficiency (Equivalent to that of an educated native speaker. Equivalent to that of an educated native).

On that scale, I'm heading towards 3.

HSK Exams

A much more accurate scale is provided by exams that are run world-wide and controlled by the Chinese government. These are called the HSK exams (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì or 汉语水平考试 ).  Hànyǔ means "Chinese" (ie: language of the Han people), Shuǐpíng means "level", and Kǎoshì means "exam". HSK is a standardized proficiency test of Standard Chinese language, notably, for non-native speakers.

At level 1, you need to know 150 words (174 characters). It is described as being designed for learners who can understand and use some simple Chinese characters and sentences to communicate, and prepares them for continuing their Chinese studies.

At level 2, you need to know 300 words (347 characters) in total (not extra over level 1). It is described as being designed for learners who can use Chinese in a simple and direct manner, applying it in a basic fashion to their daily lives.

For both levels 1 and 2, all characters are provided, along with their pinyin representation. The tests only include reading and listening. They have no writing questions.

At level 3, you need to know 600 words (617 characters). It is described as being designed for learners who can use Chinese to serve the demands of their personal lives, studies and work, and are capable of completing most of the communicative tasks they experience when visiting Chinese areas.

At level 4, you need to know 1200 words (1064 characters). It is described as being designed for learners who can discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese and are capable of communicating with Chinese speakers at a high standard.

At level 5, you need to know 2500 words (1685 characters). It is described as being designed for learners who can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and are capable of writing and delivering a lengthy speech in Chinese.

Notice that the number of words required increases exponentially. I've passed HSK 3, prepped for HSK 4 about a year and a half ago, and am comfortable with it. I just didn't get time to take it but will soon. For just over a year though, I've been prepping for HSK 5. It's far more of a challenge. Levels 3, 4, and 5 include writing tests. I'm fine with those on a computer, not so great with a pencil like they used at RMIT when I did the HSK 3 exam.

Note that HSK 5 is also the level normally required for foreigners who want to attend Chinese universities. To give you an idea of how much Chinese you would have learned at that point, here's an example question from a recent HSK 5 exam:

Above those, there is level 6 where you need to know 5000 words (2663 characters). That's described as being designed for learners who can easily understand any information communicated in Chinese and are capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form.

Level 6 includes a requirement to write an essay.

It would be awesome to ever get to level 6, but given each level is basically twice as hard as the previous, that might take me a while.

HSKK Exams

As well as the HSK exams, you can take HSKK exams. These are spoken conversation exams and have three levels:

Beginner (maps to HSK levels 1, and 2)

Intermediate (maps to HSK levels 3, and 4)

Advanced (maps to HSK levels 5, and 6)

I haven't taken any of these yet. I had a friend who did the HSK 3 exam with me and she took the Intermediate exam at the same time. She found it quite hard.

Should you do the exams and where are they?

If you have a real interest in learning Mandarin, I think you should combine that with testing, to make sure you really are getting somewhere. They are held all over the world, in most larger cities. They usually happen twice each year.

Previous exams are available as samples to let you test yourself.

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: How long does learning it really take?

If I've convinced you that learning Mandarin is worthwhile (that's how 1 in 7 people communicate world-wide), the next question I often get from people is about how long it takes to learn. Now if someone asked you that about English, what would you say? There's really no end point to the learning.

It's the same even just with words. While it's easy enough to learn the English alphabet, knowing the 26 letters doesn't actually give you an ability to understand a particular word. If I wrote Brobdingnagian, you might be able to guess how it's pronounced (because you've learned pronunciation rules over the years) but I'm guessing you probably don't know what it means.

So if I rephrase the question and ask you how long it would take to know all the words in English, again the answer is "forever". And it's the same in Mandarin.

So a better question is how long it takes to get to a particular level of proficiency/fluency. In a later post, I'll discuss using the HSK exams to accurately measure this but first I wanted to give you some rough ideas.

I've read US State Department reports that say that if you stopped every other thing in your life and just learned Mandarin, in about 2200 hours you'd be pretty fluent. At 5 hours a day, that'd be 88 weeks, or just under two years, presuming you had weekends off. At 8 hours a day (which would be quite insane), it'd be about 55 weeks, or just over a year.

But it's hard to imagine anyone being able to do that, so if we allowed 1 hour per day, and added an allowance for forgetting things between those hours (because life intervenes), it'd be around 8 or 9 years of part-time learning.

I've spent about 6 years learning on and off up till now. And I'd say that's pretty close to correct.

My reading is reasonable but I only know around 1800 characters. You really need around 2500 to be able to read newspapers, etc. with confidence.

My speaking is ok. I can describe a wide variety of topics fairly confidently. I still mess up sentence structure at times though. You'll often hear Asian people messing up the order of their English sentences. That's me in reverse.

My listening is improving. I can quite happily hold conversations with teachers for an hour at a time without English (apart from when translating something), but their language quality is good, and they aren't always speaking at native speed. I still often hear things, struggle to know what was said, but if I heard it repeated slower, I was actually able to understand it.

So for me, it's a work in progress.

I can't tell you though, how much I've enjoyed learning it, and how it's opened up another world to me, one that's right there but as Westerners, we don't see.

I intend to just keep learning more and more, and improving year by year. Each week, I probably dedicate about 5 or 6 hours to doing so but I also take advantage of every opportunity to read signs, menus, etc. and to speak to native Mandarin speakers.

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.