Learning Mandarin: How are Japanese characters related to Chinese characters?

If Asian character sets are new to you, you might wonder if Japanese and Chinese characters are the same or similar.

Japanese has a number of character sets:

Hirogana is the simplest set of characters. There is a single character for each basic sound in the language. For example in the name Hirogana itself, there are 4 characters: Hi, ro, ga, and na. Every word can be made up of these characters. The characters have no meaning on their own. There are only 46 characters and 68 additional variants of them.

Katakana is another set with the same number of characters. It is used to represent words from another language. This concept might seem a bit strange to English speakers. If we adopt a French word, we typically write it with the same alphabetic letters as we use for English. (We might use italics and/or add accents or graves but it's basically the same).

Romaji is just a way of writing the Japanese words by using a Roman alphabet like we use.

Kanji is a large set (tens of thousands) of characters where a single symbol or a pair of symbols might represent an entire word. Kanji characters originated from traditional Chinese characters.

Kanji vs Chinese

Now while the Japanese Kanji characters and the traditional Chinese characters will often be the same, the words are mostly different. And the characters might be draw somewhat differently.

In the main image above, note the similarity in the Chinese and Japanese written words, and also note that the PinYin word is very different to the Romaji word. (English-like words below).

This leads to an interesting situation. I spent 5 years learning Japanese at high school and I got to a level of basic greetings, etc. I didn't, however, ever learn enough Kanji characters to be at all literate.

In fact, many older Japanese people also don't know many Kanji characters. I've seen Japanese newspapers where the story on the front page is written using a mixture of Kanji and Hirogana, but the same story is on the back page, written entirely in Hirogana so that it can be read by less-educated people.

But now that I've learned a good number of Chinese characters, I see signs written in Japanese, and while I have no idea what the Japanese word is, I know what the sign means. So ironically, I can understand more written Japanese since I've been learning Chinese, than back when I was learning Japanese.

I might not know the Japanese words, but I recognize the written characters as "fish market" in both of the languages shown above.

Traditional Chinese

Part of the reason those words above look different is that the Chinese is actually Simplified Chinese. Japanese Kanji was based on traditional Chinese characters.

Now compare the Japanese to the Traditional Chinese:

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: Radicals can help to identify correct characters

In a previous post, I mentioned that radicals (characters within characters) can help you to recognize characters in Chinese.

A simple example is that if I type "ma" into my pin-yin editor, I see this:

The third character is the word for a horse. (Notice that it now even returns an emoticon for a horse in this editor as the fifth character -> how cute).

If you look at the fourth character, you can see the horse on the right, but another symbol on the left. The one on the left is the woman radical. I know this is the word for mother because this radical is there.

If you look at the first character, you'll again see the horse on the right. That's how the sound is assigned to the character. The radical on the left though is the character for a mouth. This "ma" is a bit like a question mark in English. Adding it to many sentences turns them into questions, like "ka" does in Japanese.

Another purpose

But there is another aspect of the radicals that makes them useful. In English, I could say:

I must bring an umbrella.

but I could also say:

I must take an umbrella.

You'll notice there's  a subtle difference in the meaning of these English sentences, but they're still pretty close.

Similarly, in Chinese there is often a confusion about whether to use

带 (Dài) – as a verb, Google says "carry"

or

拿 (Ná) – as a verb, Google says "take" or "hold"

Where the radicals become of interest, is helping to decide which one to use. Here is a bigger picture of the second word:

The bottom radical (that I have highlighted) is actually this character:

手 (Shǒu) which means "hand"

And it's no surprise that 拿 (Ná) is more commonly related to situations where you are picking something up to take it (i.e. it involves using your hand).

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: Radicals can help with meaning

I get a lot of questions from people about how anyone ever learns so many Chinese characters. There are about 30,000 of them but, like in English, most people use a much smaller subset of them. I've often heard 2,500 mentioned as a good level, and enough to read most newspaper articles, etc.

One trick with learning the characters is to learn about radicals. In many cases, recognizing the radicals will help you to recognize the characters.

Radicals are written as part of characters but they're usually squashed. For example, the word

(Rén) is the word for "person" or perhaps "man" in the sense of "mankind".

But it's also the character on the left hand side of this word:

(Nǐ)

The word means "you" and the person radical is the vertical line and the stroke leading up to it. I've highlighted it in the main image above. It's referred to as:

人字旁 (Rén zì páng) which is close to "person character beside".

Another common word that appears as a radical is:

(Shuǐ)

You'll often see it as a series of droplets:

(Hǎi) is the word for sea. The three droplets on the left are the squashed form of the word water. So it would be called:

水字旁 (Shuǐ zì páng)

Learning the common radicals can help you to recognize words much more quickly. You'll often have an idea what they're about.

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: Words that look the same but have different pronunications and meanings

In English, we have a number of words that are spelled the same way but sound different and have different meanings. These are called heteronyms. They shouldn't be confused with homographs which are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, and homophones that are words that sound alike, have different meanings, and different spellings.

A common example of a heteronym is the word lead. I can lead someone to pick up a piece of lead.

An more interesting example is the word August. As a proper noun, it's the month and has emphasis on the first syllable when pronounced. As an adjective, it's describing someone and has emphasis on the second syllable when pronounced. August is also an example of a capitonym, or a word that has a different meaning when it is capitalized.

Now, you could argue that these types of words would be more common in English, given we only have 26 characters to play with when creating words. And if Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, does it run into the same problems?

And the answer is yes.

A simple example is this character:

I can use it like this:

我还没有那本书。(Wǒ hái méiyǒu nà běn shū)

In this case, the word is (hái) and means "still". The sentence above means "I still don't have that book".

But exactly the same character can be: (huán). It means close to the English equivalent of "return" as in returning something to someone.

Here are some other common examples:

银行 (Yínháng) – this is the word for a bank. The second character is háng. But the same character can be Xíng with a lot of different meanings.

is chang or zhang

is le or liao

is zhe or zhao

And so on. So you might start to understand the real challenge of automatic translation by computers. If you just type 长 how would the computer have any idea what you meant? The answer is that you have to give it context (i.e. more to go on) before it can decide that.

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: The Secret Garden (Mandarin Companion)

I've mentioned lately that I've read a few Mandarin Companion books. I've just finished another one of these graded readers written in simplified Chinese. It was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Author), Renjun Yang (Editor), Cui Yu (Editor), John Pasden (Editor), Jared Turner (Introduction).

It's an adaptation of a classic tale. In this version, a young girl who isn't happy with her life (her parents don't seem to care for her), gets up one day to find they and their friends who had been visiting are all dead from a mystery illness.

She's sent to live with her uncle who has a grand house but seems pretty cold. We learn that's because he's sad that his wife died. And his son is a very sickly boy. His wife had a garden that she loved but he'd closed it up and kept everyone out.

But the young girl (Li Ye) finds the garden with the help of a small bird and a friend, takes the sickly son there and he progressively gets better.

It's a great story, and I was even more excited to find they've released this series of books as audio books as well, so I've started listening to the same book.

Bottom line?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's another book that's written using only basic (almost childlike) language but still has an interesting story.

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: If Chinese is a metric country, what's a Jin ?

There are very few countries in the world now that do not use the metric system. Last I looked it was three: the USA, Liberia, and Myanmar.

China is regarded as a metric country. Over the years, they've had a number of standards of measurement. Big shakeups occurred in 1915, 1930, and again in 1959.

Regarding weight, Chinese do have grams and kilograms.

公克 (Gōngkè) is the formal word for "gram".

(Gōng) is really the word for "public", and (Kè) basically means "gram". So it's not surprising that it's often used without (Gōng).

Kilograms are a bit different though.

公斤 (Gōngjīn) is the formal word for "kilogram".

However, while the first character still means "public", (Jīn) doesn't mean "kilogram". It actually means "half a kilogram" or 500g.

(Jīn) is basically the modern equivalent of the old Chinese pound (which was slightly heavier). It is still very commonly used when buying things like vegetables. Instead of buying 1.5 kilograms, you'll hear people order 3 jin.

You'll also often hear (Jīn) called another name that sounds like "catty". This is what it's called in Hong Kong and Macau, and so the name also ends up all over the country.

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: The Monkey's Paw (Mandarin Companion)

In a previous post, I mentioned how much I liked the "Mandarin Companion" series of books. They are written in graded levels of Chinese. I've recently read another book in this series: The Monkey's Paw.

This is a classic tale that's based around the concept of "be careful of what you wish for".

It's the tale of a family (mother and father and their adult son). The son is a factory worker. A mysterious old friend of the father visits them one day. He tells them about a monkey's paw that has the power to grant three wishes to whoever holds it. While warning them that a great toll can be felt by those that take the wishes, he still ends up giving it to them.

And as you can imagine, they later end up wishing they'd never heard of it.

Bottom line?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Although the language is again a bit repetitive and simplistic in places, once again I'd say that the level was perfect for me. It's so much more interesting to read these books with more teen or adult themes where the writing is still at a child level.

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: 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.