Learning Mandarin – it all happened suddenly

Another group of words that are probably best learned as a set are the ones that are related to things happening suddenly. And you'll notice they are similar in one way.

突然 (Túrán) is basically "suddenly" but can also be used for "abruptly" or "unexpectedly".

忽然 (Hūrán) is also "suddenly" or "all of a sudden". But the difference is that it's a bit softer. 突然 (Túrán) can be intended to be quite harsh or jarring. 忽然 (Hūrán) might be "sudden but not unexpected".

竟然 (Jìngrán) can also be "suddenly" but it tends to indicate more of a surprise that has happened, so more like "unexpectedly".

居然 (Jūrán) is also "suddenly" or "unexpectedly" and is closer in meaning to 竟然 (Jìngrán) but 居然 (Jūrán) is softer than 竟然 (Jìngrán).

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: Saying Not- the difference between 没 (Méi) and 不 (Bù)

In English, the word not delivers the opposite meaning to other words, usually to verbs. So He is here becomes He is not here, and I do like it becomes I do not like it. But in Mandarin, there appear to be two words that are used in much the same way.

(Bù) and (Méi) and both used to indicate "not". And unlike in English, they go before the verb.

Even though I've been learning Mandarin for the best part of a decade now, my teachers are still often correcting me when I've used the wrong one of these. So which should be used when?

Some rules

The simplest first rule is that if you're using the verb (Yǒu), it's always 没有 (Méiyǒu). A really simple question in Mandarin is about whether or not you have something: 有没有? (Yǒu méiyǒu?) is literally "have not have" but is used for "Do you have (it)?".

If you have things that sound like habitual actions, these invariably are reversed with (Bù). For example: 我不喝啤酒 (Wǒ bù hē píjiǔ) is "I don't drink beer".

Most adjectives (particularly descriptive ones) are also reversed by using (Bù). For example: 她不高 (Tā bù gāo) is "She is not tall".

There is also a sense of tense with these two words:

我不吃 (Wǒ bù chī) is "I don't eat" or more likely "I will not eat".

我没吃 (Wǒ méi chī) is more like "I didn't eat". (Note the past tense).

And not quite the opposite

It's interesting that when you combine (Bù) with 错 (Cuò), you produce something that's much more positive than in English. Google translates 它很不错 (Tā hěn bùcuò) as "It is very good". In English "not bad" isn't so positive.

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: Sets of words – positions and directions

I find that learning whole sets of words is useful, rather than just trying to learn words in isolation. A good example is that when I was learning colors, I'd just learn as many colors as I could, and I'd just look around me in whatever room I was in, and try to name the colors that I saw.

A similar useful set is positions and directions. These are also good to learn as a set:

左边 (Zuǒbiān) is to the left

右边 (Yòubiān) is to the right

前面 (Qiánmiàn) is in front

后面 (Hòumiàn) is behind

上面 (Shàngmiàn) is on top (or above)

下面 (Xiàmiàn) is under (or below)

旁边 (Pángbiān) is next to (or beside)

对面 (Duìmiàn) is across from (or opposite)

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: A little bit – yi dian vs you dian

The word (Diǎn) is particularly useful. It basically means "a dot" like made with a writing brush, and from that, it means "a little bit".

I previously discussed how northerners (and Beijing folk) put "r" sounds on the end of many words. This is another one. So they'd often use 点儿  (Diǎn er) which is pronounced a bit like "dee-arrr".

There are two basic ways that gets used though.

Yīdiǎn

One common use is  一点 (Yīdiǎn).  The first character basically means "one" and this pair of characters is commonly used for "a little".

Yǒudiǎn

Another common use is 有点 (Yǒudiǎn). The first character in this case means "have" and this pair of characters also tends to mean "a bit".

So then, which is used when?

Let's see some examples:

今天我有点忙。(Jīntiān wǒ yǒudiǎn máng.) This means "today I'm a little busy". When 有点 is put in front of adjectives like "busy", it implies more of a negative connotation. It's almost like "today I'm a little too busy".

一点 can't be put in front of adjectives but it can be put after them.

请开快一点。(Qǐng kāi kuài yīdiǎn.) is "please drive a bit faster".

When 一点 is put in front of a noun, it means "a little" as a quantity.

请喝一点水。(Qǐng hè yīdiǎn shuǐ.) is "please drink a little water".

Slightly Tricky Negative Rules

There are also some rules for negatives. The most common "not" words are (Bù) and (Méi). (We'll talk another day about how they differ). But if you are putting 点 in front of either, it should be 有点.

他有点不高兴。(Tā yǒudiǎn bù gāoxìng.) is "he is a little unhappy".

However, if the sentence has 都不 (Dōu bù) or 也不 (Yě bù), then 一点 should be used instead.

她一点都不喜欢这音乐。(Tā yīdiǎn dōu bù xǐhuān zhè yīnyuè.) is "she doesn't like this music at all".

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: Common newbie mistake is to overuse "is"

In many ways, verbs in Mandarin are easier than the ones in English. There's no need to learn any equivalent of conjugation and tense.

In English, we have a verb like make but then we have to learn made, making, and how to use will make, has been made, etc.

In Chinese, there's pretty much a single form of the verb, and there's another character that is often used to indicate that an action is complete.

Do we even need the verb?

Even simpler, the verb is often omitted entirely and replaced by a type of adverb. Let me show you a concrete example:

(Shì) is the verb closest to "is". (As a verb, perhaps also "be" or "exist").

The general use of "is" is quite like in English.

我是澳大利亚人。(Wǒ shì àodàlìyǎ rén.) means "I am Australian". Literally, it's like "I is Australia person".

车是蓝色的。(Chē shì lán sè de)  means "the car is blue". Literally, it's like "car is blue colored".

Common Mistake

But the common mistake made by many new learners is to include the "is" when it's not needed.

Coming from English, if we try to translate "she is beautiful", it's tempting to try:

她是漂亮。(Tā shì piàoliang.) Literally "she is beautiful".

But that's incorrect. Instead, when combining a subject with an adjective, you normally use the word (Hěn) which is pronounced somewhat like "hun" but has a falling and rising tone in the middle. It would normally be translated as "very".

So it's used like this instead:

她很漂亮。(Tā hěn piàoliang.)  Literally, this is "she very beautiful", which sounds odd in English but perfectly fine in Mandarin. And note, that unlike English where every sentence must have a verb, that sentence has no verb.

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: What is stroke order and does it matter?

I was at school a long time ago. For all the 5 years that I was at high school, I studied Japanese. In Brisbane in 1971 when I started studying it, I can tell you that doing so was a rare thing. In fact, studying any Asian language was pretty rare. The country has come a long, long way since those days.

Curiously though, my Japanese teacher wasn't Japanese. He was a Caucasian guy named Joe Geiger. He must have been almost the least popular teacher in the school. Teachers were free to terrorise students in those days, and he had made doing that into nearly an art form. But his soft spot was Japanese and South East Asian Studies. Because I took those two subjects, and because I continued them both on for the full five years (the latter was only offered after-school hours for the last four years), I ended up getting on really well with Joe and learned a lot from him. That made me a bit of an oddity (a bit like a teacher's pet) in his other classes.

Stroke Order

In Japanese class though, one thing that struck me early on, was his insistence on writing characters with the correct stroke order. At first, I didn't get why it mattered. And it's the same story in Chinese and other languages. I'm not across Korean (yet) but my guess is that it matters there too.

Here's an example. The Chinese character for word I (i.e. referring to myself) is:

我  (Wǒ) which is pronounced a bit like "war" with a descending and ascending tone in the middle of the word.

Here's how it's drawn:

There are several reasons why this stroke order matters:

Your characters don't look as good if you don't draw them in the correct order. There's a natural flow to how the characters are drawn, and you won't get the right angles, etc. if you draw them in the wrong order.

Because they flow, they're actually easier to write in the first place. They're designed for elegant movement of the brush (or now the pen).

Tools that recognise writing work far better when you use the right order. That matters if you're ever trying to use handwritten input on a program.

And the strangest reason of all: people watching you write will think you are uneducated. I'm not joking. Incorrect stroke order is a giveaway for a lack of education.

Tools for Learning Stroke Order

The best tool (by far) that I've found for learning this is called Skritter. It can teach both Chinese and Japanese handwriting and tones. It's a subscription-based application, and its mobile applications (i.e. iOS) are excellent.

While I can get by without too much handwriting, I find that when you practice it, it totally reinforces your understanding of the characters and words of the language.

I'm determined to spend more time on Skritter this coming year.

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: Chinese belief in luck

I need to start by coming right out and saying that I don't believe in things being lucky or unlucky. Many things that appear to have come from luck just haven't. Sometimes things go the way you hope, and other times they don't go the way you hope. And bad things can just happen for no good reason. What you can do is put yourself in a position where you increase your chances of a good thing happening. That's making your own luck.

I think that a belief in things being lucky or not, grew from an age when we just understood far less about how the world works. The rituals followed by cargo cults are a great example.

Belief in luck in Asian Cultures

However, in Chinese culture (and in most Asian cultures), there is a deep-seated belief in luck, and it's reflected all through superstitions and in the language.

I've previously described why you'll have a hard time selling a house numbered 4 to a Chinese person, and even harder time selling one numbered 24.

And there are so many actions that are considered lucky or unlucky:

  • Throwing baby's teeth that have fallen out on the roof (good luck)
  • Washing or cutting your hair the last or first day of the year (bad luck)
  • Giving someone a clock as a present (bad luck)
  • Clip your nails at night (bad luck for inviting ghosts to that place)
  • Keeping pet turtles (bad luck for slowing down fortune)
  • Sweeping during New Year (bad luck for sweeping away fortune)
  • Red color (lucky)

Now the Chinese are not alone on this. Many westerners hold strong superstitions as well. I remember the time I put shoes on a table when I was young. The problem wasn't dirt (they were brand new shoes); the problem was my father's belief that it brings death.

Literally translated, luck is 运气 (Yùnqì).

The first character 运 (Yùn) has a number of meanings, and one is related to luck. The second character (Qì) usually relates a bit to gas or spirit.

The down side

Awesome image by Macau Photo Agency

丰富 (Fēngfù) means rich or plentiful and you'll often see it shown in casinos and gambling places that Asian people frequent.

As a final note, I should add that this continuing belief in luck has a dark side as well. Gambling addiction is very prevalent in Asian cultures. Casinos here in Australia and in other countries make no secret that their top market is "Asian High Rollers".

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: Northerners and er – Pirate speak?

I've found that most countries have different ways of saying things in different areas of the country or in nearby countries. As an Australian, I can immediately detect a Kiwi (New Zealander) if they say "fish", as I hear them say "fush" instead. We pronounce "tomato" like "tomarto" but the US folk say it like it's "tomayto". We say "banana" like "banarna" and they say it like "bananna".

And of course the same thing happens in China.

I have friends that describe northerners as using "Pirate Speak" because they add the sound "R" to the end of many words. (Pirates are renowned for saying "Arrrgh".

Most in the southern regions don't do this, so a northerner is easily detected.

Here are a few examples:

Instead of 一点 (Yīdiǎn) which means "a little bit" being pronounced like "ee dee enn", they say 一点儿 (Yīdiǎn er) which sounds like "ee deearr". the "n" sound is gone.

Instead of 一会 (Yī huǐ) which means "a little while" being pronounced like "ee hway", they say 一会儿 (Yīhuǐ'er) which sounds like "ee hwarr".

Next time you hear someone speaking Chinese, see if you can pick the "arr".

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: Chinese Internet Slang – What is 520?

It's really common nowadays for English speakers to use serious abbreviations when texting each other. Even the current anti-depression campaign is called R U OK?

In hacker parlance, words are designed to confuse people, like the ones used by the 1337 (i.e. the "leet" or "elite" in hacker parlance).

So you might wonder how this plays out in Chinese, with their much more complex character sets.

Turns out that there are some really interesting variations on this.

520 is a common abbreviation for "I love you". The phrase "I love you" in Chinese is 我爱你。(Wǒ ài nǐ.)

Now getting to 520 from Wǒ ài nǐ is quite a stretch, yet it's become commonplace. 520 is 五二零 (Wǔ'èr líng) when written character by character. (The value 520 is actually 五百二十 or Wǔbǎi èrshí meaning 5 hundreds and 2 tens).

The idea is that Wǔ'èr líng sounds a bit like Wǒ ài nǐ. As I said, that's actually quite a stretch.

Here are a few more:

213 is a person who's a bit stupid
1314 is forever, and of course 520 1314 is "I love you forever"
4242 is "yes, for sure" because 四二四二 (Sì'èrsì'èr) sounds a bit like 是啊是啊 (Shì a shì a)

and so on. Wikipedia has a list of common ones here. It's worth a read. Some are quite creative.

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: Nine – long lasting

This is the tenth in a series of posts where I'm looking at how the Chinese view numbers, often from a superstitious basis.

Nine

The Chinese character for nine (Jiǔ) is shown on the right hand side of the main image above.

The number nine is also a lucky number. Once again, that comes from the fact that it's pronounced similarly to 久 (Jiǔ) which means "a long time". In some contexts, it can mean "long lasting" or even "everlasting". Because of the latter meaning, you'll often hear it used in weddings.

The number has older relevance to emperors, regarding the nine bestowments and later the nine-rank system for exams. Emperor's robes were often adorned with nine dragons. The forbidden city was said to have had 9,999 and a half rooms.

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.