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.

 

Learning Mandarin: Common Characters used as Radicals

In an earlier post, I discussed how many Chinese characters are in fact made up of several other simpler characters, called radicals. In Mandarin, these radicals are called bù shǒu (部首).

For example, in the word Hǎo (good):

The character on the left is the radical form of the character Nǚ (woman or female):

And the character on the right is the radical form of the character Zi and means "child":

In both these cases though, it's pretty obvious when you look at the first character what the characters that are contained as radicals are. That's not always the case as in the character below:

It's Mù and means to "wash" or "bathe" or even to "wash your hair". The radical character on the left though is Shuǐ (water) and notice that when the character is written on its own, it's quite different:

Another common radical is Shǒu (hand). This is its normal form:

Here is an example of it used (on the left hand side) as a radical in the word Tí (lift up or raise):

The radical part of that character is normally referred to as "shou zi pang" (hand character beside).

There are 214 standard Chinese radicals used to build most characters according to the HSK Academy.

Here are some other very common words and their radical forms on the left-hand side of other characters that use them:

Here are two used below:

And one used on the lower right-hand side:

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: Phono-semantic characters (sound and meaning)

You may well have noticed that many Chinese characters are made up of several other smaller characters. A simple example is this word:

This is the character  Hǎo and it comprises two other basic characters:

The first character is Nǚ and means "woman". The second character is Zi and means "child". The combination of the two characters "woman and child" is Hǎo and means "good". I think that's quite delightful.

But not all multi-part characters are comprised of sub-characters that add to the meaning. In many cases, characters comprise two sections:

  • Sound
  • Meaning

These are called phono-semantic characters. Here's an example:

This is the character Mā and means "mum" or "mother". The semantics comes from the woman character, and the sound comes from this character:

This is Mǎ and means "horse". Clearly, you don't want to mess these up, and the difference is how they are pronounced. Mā is neutral tone, and Mǎ is third tone (a falling and rising tone).

Here's another example of a phono-semantic character:

It's Mù and means to "wash" or "bathe" or even to "wash your hair". But before even knowing what it means, you can guess roughly how it sounds because it includes this character:

That's also Mù but means "wood". For interest, the character on the left is a modified form of this character:

It's Shuǐ and means "water".

For one final example, here's another pair of characters:

The first is Lín and means forest. Notice it's multiple trees.

So by now you might be able to roughly guess the pronunciation of the second character. It is also Lín and means to "drench" or "shower". And here's yet another:

It's also Lín and roughly means "beautiful jade" or "gem". The character on the left is this one:

It's Wáng and means "king".

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: 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.