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.

Learning Mandarin: Larger numbers and what's up with 20,000 ?

In an earlier post, I described how to count in Mandarin. That covered the numbers up to 100. Obviously, we need to know larger numbers, yet that was where I first came across a substantial difference in how the Chinese count when compared to English speakers. And I managed to get another puzzled look from my mother-in-law.

The larger numbers are quite different from what we use. Instead of hundred, thousand, million, and billion, they are:

(qiān) is 1,000
(wàn) is 10,000
亿 (yì) is 100,000,000

Note how different this is.

I remember trying to say 20,000 to my mother-in-law, and I said:

二十千 (Èrshíqiān)

That was my direct translation of twenty (two tens), and thousand. She looked at me very puzzled, and I eventually caught on that they don't say that.

Notice they have a word for 10,000, so they don't say twenty thousand, they say two ten thousands:

二万 (Èr wàn)

The other large numbers are then combinations of the values above:

十万 (shí wàn) is 100,000 (ten ten-thousands)
百万 (bǎi wàn) is 1,000,000 (one hundred ten-thousands)
千万 (qiān wàn) is 10,000,000 (one thousand ten-thousands)
亿 (yì) is 100,000,000 (one hundred-million)
十亿 (shí yì) is 1,000,000,000 (ten hundred-millions)

It's also worth noting that based upon the age of the language, that (wàn) is also just used as a form of inexact value meaning "a lot".

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: Talking about death

You'll often hear people say that tools like Google Translate don't really translate all that well. I think it's awesome for what it does but there are of course, subtleties that it doesn't get. One of those is around death.

In English, it's perfectly common to have a discussion like this:

#1: How's your father nowadays

#2: He's dead.          (or He died)

Now you can try to use a direct translation like this:

他死了。(Tā sǐle.)  (Tā) is "he", (sǐ) is "dead" or "die", and the (le) indicates a change of state that has already occurred.

"He has died" is translated closer to 他已经去世了。(Tā yǐjīng qùshìle.)  已经 (yǐjīng) is basically "already".

All well and good, except that every time I say that, I get corrected by native speakers. I think that although it's ok in English, in Chinese, it's considered way too direct. They always tell me to say this:

他去世了。 (Tā qùshìle.)  Google translates "He has passed away" to that sentence. Again (Tā) is "he", and (le) indicates a change of state that has already occurred. (qù) is normally to "go" and (shì) means "world", and probably short for 世界 (Shìjiè) which you'll often see used for "world".

So it's literally more like "he has gone from the world", and closer to us saying "he's passed away".

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 in Mandarin

In any new language, learning to count is important. So today, I'll start with the words for the numbers from 0 to 100.

The primary digits are as follows:

(Líng) is zero

(Yī) is one

(Èr) is two

(Sān) is three

(Sì) is four

(Wǔ) is five

(Liù) is six

(Qī) is seven

(Bā) is eight

(Jiǔ) is nine

(Shí) is ten

To form the values from 11 to 19, we use ten followed by the digit. So

十一 (Shíyī) is eleven

十二 (Shí'èr) is twelve

and so on up to 19.

To make multiples of ten, we use a digit before the ten:

五十 (Wǔshí) is fifty (5 followed by 10)

九十 (Jiǔshí) is ninety (9 followed by 10)

And then to make the other values, we use a digit before and after the ten:

五十三 (Wǔshísān) is fifty-three (five tens and three)

So that covers all from 0 to 99.

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: Color words

Yet another useful group of words that are best learned as a set are the words to describe colors.

Now the general term for color is:

颜色 (Yánsè)

I can use it in a sentence like this:

那是什么颜色? (Nà shì shénme yánsè?) is basically "what is that color?" or better "what color is that?"

To answer it, here are some common colors:

红色 (Hóng sè) is red

蓝色 (Lán sè) is blue

黄色 (Huáng sè) is yellow

绿色 (Lǜsè) is green

黑色 (Hēi sè) is black

白色 (Bái sè) is white

褐色 (Hé sè) is brown

灰色 (Huī sè) is gray

粉色 (Fěn sè) is pink (although my mother in law says 粉红色 (Fěnhóng sè) which is like "pinkish red")

金 色 (Jīn sè) is gold

银色 (Yín sè) is silver

紫色 (Zǐ sè) is purple

橙色 (Chéng sè) is orange

This is a good general set to get started with. And of course, as we do in English, there are entire families of colors and shades associated with each of these.

For example, (Shēn) is deep and so it's no surprise that

深绿色 (Shēn lǜsè) is deep green or dark green.

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: More direction words

Another useful group of words that I learned are used to describe the position of something.

Here are the most common:

(Shàng) is up or on
(Xià) is below or under

(Qián) is in front
(Hòu) is behind

(Páng) is beside

(Lǐ) is in (like inside)
(Wài) is out (like outside)

(Yòu) is right
(Zuǒ) is left

Often these words are used with either (Biān) or (Miàn) to indicate the position. Both seem to be able to be used interchangeably, but I know most of my Taiwanese friends seem to use (Miàn) most of the time, except they seem to always use (Biān) for left and right.

You'll often hear these after a noun, to indicate a position, in relation to the noun. So

房子后面 (Fángzi hòumiàn) will be "rear of the house".

镜子前面 (Jìngzi qiánmiàn) is "in front of the mirror".

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: The direction words

I mentioned in an earlier post that I find it easier to remember groups of words, rather than trying to remember individual words. An interesting (and very useful) group of words, are the direction words.

The first of these are the compass directions.

In English, we say "north, south, east, and west". Directly translated, they would be:

北,南,东,西  (Běi, nán, dōng, xī)

Now I don't know how we ever came to choose that order to say them, and it's interesting that we go top, bottom, right, left.

Chinese don't do that. They say "east, south, west, and north". So, you'll instead hear:

东,南,西,北   (Dōng, nán, xī, běi)

As well as the basic directions, in English, we also say "northward, southward", etc. To indicate the "in a northerly direction", in Mandarin, the word  方 (Fāng) is appended. So:

北方  (Běifāng) is like "northward".

Another useful suffix word is (Biān) is like "side". So

北边 (Běibian) is the "north 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 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.