Learning Mandarin: Words that mean the opposite to themselves

One thing I've come across in Mandarin that I don't recall striking often in English are words that have multiple meanings, and the meanings are the opposite of each other. They do exist in English, and are called Janus words or sometimes contronyms, antagonyms, or auto-antonyms.

An English example is the word "sanction". It can mean to give official permission or approval for (an action), but it can also mean to impose a penalty on. Another example is "seed". If you seed a lawn, you put seeds into it. If you seed a tomato, you remove the seeds from it. Others are less obvious like "trim" which could mean to add extras to the edge of something, or to remove them. But there aren't a lot of these.

In the main image above, you can see the Chinese word (Jiè) and Google Translate shows the meaning as "borrow".

All good. But now check out the alternate meanings that Google provides:

So "borrow" and "lend" ?

When I first came across this word, I had no idea how I'd know what was going on. But as always, context is everything.

你借我一块钱。(Nǐ jiè wǒ yīkuài qián.)

Google says "You lend me a dollar". Now it's not really a dollar but the basic idea is there. A dollar would be more like 一美元 (yī měiyuán) for an American dollar, or 一澳元 (yī àoyuán) for an Australian dollar. kuài is sort of a "piece" and qián is "money". Here it would mean one Chinese Yuan or about 1/6th of a dollar.

Similarly, turning it around the other way is:

我借你一块钱。(Wǒ jiè nǐ yīkuài qián.)

"I lend you a dollar". So that didn't do the trick. However:

我从你借了一块钱。(Wǒ cóng nǐ jièle yīkuài qián.)

"I borrowed one dollar from you".

(cóng) is essentially "from".

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: Asking questions

I learned Japanese for many years in my teens. And I certainly remember that the most common way to make a sentence into a question, or to recognize a question, was that it ends in "ka". Mandarin has a similar word in

(ma)

It's often translated as a question mark. If you look carefully, you can see that the character has two characters (or radicals) within it. On the left is (Kǒu) which means "mouth". That provides part of the meaning. On the right is (Mǎ) which means "horse". It's used to provide the sound, not the meaning.

Let's see an example:

你有朋友。(Nǐ yǒu péngyǒu.)

That literally is "You have friend", but more likely "You have friends".

If we add the question mark:

你有朋友吗?(Nǐ yǒu péngyǒu ma?)

And it becomes "Do you have friends?"

Note that even in English, we could use the sentence "You have friends", as a question, just by changing the tone of how we say it.

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: Sentence word order – Part 4 – How an action happened

In my first word order post, I explained the basic Subject-Verb-Object sentence order. Then in a second post, I explained how time (when something happened) normally gets added to sentences. In the third post, I looked at adding where something happened. In this final post in this word order series, I'll look at how an action happened.

How an action happened

In English, we can do this a few ways:

1 – In the office this morning, I drank my coffee slowly.

2 – In the office, I drank my coffee this morning, slowly.

3 – I drank my coffee in the office this morning, slowly.

4 – In the office this morning, I slowly drank my coffee.

5 – I slowly drank my coffee in the office this morning.

I'd say that the first option is probably the most common, the "cleanest" and probably conveys the meaning the best. The third isn't too bad but the second is starting to sound odd.  The fourth is a little odd, and what I think is also odd in the fifth one, is it's not that clear what you're emphasizing.

It's likely that the sentence is trying to emphasize the "slowly" part.

In English, "slowly" is an adverb. In Mandarin, adverbs are called 副词 (Fùcí) which is close to saying "auxiliary word". Google says "vice" for Fù but it's more like vice as in vice-captain.

As in English, adverbs are often closely related to adjectives.

The adjective for "slow" in Mandarin is (Màn).

I could say "I'm too slow" by writing:

我太慢了。(Wǒ tài mànle.) which is literally "I too slow" followed by the indicator that the action has completed in "le".

For our sentence about the coffee in the office, this is a likely outcome:

今天早上在办公室,我慢慢喝咖啡。
(Jīntiān zǎoshang zài bàngōngshì, wǒ màn man hē kāfēi.)

This is literally "This morning at the office I slowly slowly drank coffee".

Notice that the adjective and the adverb use the same character () so it's the context that tells you what it is. This is much simpler than learning "slow" and "slowly" as different words in English.

The other interesting aspect is that a typical translation like the one above, doubles up the word (). This is a common thing to do, and I'll talk about that more another day.

Another way this could have been said is:

今天早上在办公室,我喝咖啡慢慢地。
(Jīntiān zǎoshang zài bàngōngshì, wǒ hē kāfēi màn man de.)

This is literally "This morning at the office, I drank coffee slowly". And apart from the order of the time and place, is pretty similar to our preferred English option.

What happened to "ly" in English ?

Curiously though, the "ly" seems to be disappearing in English nowadays. Can't say I like it, but I hear people all the time saying things like:

Drive safe.

When I was young, my teacher would have scolded me for saying that, yet you'll see it on even government publications here now.

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: Sentence word order – Part 3 – Where an action happened

In my first word order post, I explained the basic Subject-Verb-Object sentence order. Then in a second post, I explained how time (when something happened) normally gets added to sentences. In this post, I'll look at how you show where something happened.

Where an action happened

In English, we can do this a few ways:

1 – This morning I drank coffee in the office.

2 – In the office, I drank coffee this morning.

3 – I drank coffee in the office this morning.

I'd say that the third option is probably the most common, and the "cleanest". The first isn't too bad but the second sounds odd.

Even though #3 is the one we'd probably use in English, it's not the way we'd say it in Mandarin. The location just doesn't go at the end of the sentence if it's not the object. It's usually straight after the subject.

Here's an example:

我今天早上在办公室喝咖啡。(Wǒ jīntiān zǎoshang zài bàngōngshì hē kāfēi.)

That's literally:

I, this morning in the office, drank coffee.

And yes, that sounds odd to us.

The word (zài) has many uses but is usually translated as "at".

办公室 (bàngōngshì) is the office.

Last time I also mentioned that 喝了 (hēle) means "drank". It was the verb to drink, followed by an indication that the action had completed.

Yet even though it's the verb to drink again here, the isn't part of the sentence. It's because the time component is there.

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: Sentence word order – Part 2 – When an action happened

In my previous Mandarin post, I explained the basic Subject-Verb-Object sentence order. That's pretty similar to English. One stark difference though, is when you start to add in the time that an action happened.

When an action happened

In English, we can do this many ways:

1 – This morning I drank coffee.

2 – I, this morning, drank coffee.

3 – I drank coffee this morning.

I'd say that #3 is probably the most common, and the "cleanest". #1 is ok-ish, and #2 works but is pretty odd. It could be used to emphasise when it happened.

Even though #3 is the one we'd probably use in English, it's not the way we'd say it in Mandarin. The time just doesn't go at the end of the sentence. It's usually either first, or following the subject in this type of sentence.

今早,我喝了咖啡。(Jīn zǎo, wǒ hēle kāfēi.)

or

我今早喝了咖啡。(Wǒ jīn zǎo hēle kāfēi.)

In these sentences, 今早 (Jīn zǎo) means "this morning".  More formally it would be 今天早上 (Jīntiān zǎoshang) which is literally "today morning" but this is a common contraction of it.

喝了 (hēle) in this case means "drank". It's the verb to drink, followed by a character that indicates that the action is complete. (Not quite the same as past tense).

Instead of making it past tense here, if I did it every day, I could say:

每天,我喝咖啡。(Měitiān, wǒ hē kāfēi.) means "every" and means "day". Notice that this sentence doesn't have the 了 as this is not a completed action.

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: Sentence Word Order – Part 1 – Subject-Verb-Object

Many people think learning Chinese is difficult. They're probably right. Many parts of Chinese, though, are quite straightforward for English speakers. Tense is simpler (and I'll write about it again soon), and sentence structure isn't too bad. Let me tell you about some core differences though.

Subject-Verb-Object

This one's the easiest. It's the same as in English. I can say:

我喜欢咖啡。(Wǒ xǐhuān kāfēi.)

It's just: I like coffee. (Wǒ) is "I".喜欢 (xǐhuān) is "like".咖啡 (kāfēi) is a loan word for "Coffee".

Similarly:

我去医院。(Wǒ qù yīyuàn.)

is "I go to hospital".

Or even:

我爱你。(Wǒ ài nǐ.)

for "I love you".

Adjectives

Note that this structure doesn't apply to how we use adjectives.

In English, we might say:

"She is clever".

In Chinese, we don't use the same structure for that.

While you could write:

她是聪明的。(Tā shì cōngmíng de.)

which is literally "she is smart", it's far more common to say:

她很聪明。(Tā hěn cōngmíng.)

which is literally "she very smart". Note the lack of a verb in that sentence. If you spend much time talking to Chinese people who are learning English, you'll recognize that that's a common sentence order that they often get incorrect.

Next time, I'll add some info about where concepts of "where, when, and how" go into these sentences.

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: Body shapes

If you spend any time talking to native Chinese, one thing that you'll find starkly different to Western discussions is how direct they can be in terms of talking about body shape (and many other personal items). In the West, we tend to be pretty coy about discussing someone's body shape with them, but I find my Chinese speaking friends are much more direct. So I thought it would be good to start by describing some of the common words for body shapes.

(Gāo) is the word for tall. It's pronounced pretty much like "now" but with a G at the beginning. It can also mean high, expensive, lofty, or even high-priced.

(Ǎi) is the word for short. It's pronounced like "high" without the first H.

(Pàng) is the word for fat. It's pronounced like "pung". Traditionally, fatter people were uncommon but it was an attribute of wealthy and healthy people. Being too thin was a bad thing.

(Shòu) is the word for thin. It's pronounced like "show". Because of the connotation of not having enough food, etc. it could also be used to mean poor.

Combinations also work:

高大 (Gāodà). On its own, means big. This combination (for men) is like tall and strong.

高挑 (Gāotiǎo) tends to be used for women, for tall and slender. is pronounced a bit like "tea" and "ow" run together.

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: 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.