Sunday, May 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mandarin Segments!

Mandarin Segments is 1 today!

Happy birthday!

  • During the last year, I have posted 63 articles
  • There have been hundreds of comments left on this blog
  • According to Feedburner, I have many hundreds of subscribers (and this excludes all potential subscribers from China, because BlogSpot remains blocked there)
  • I have had around 10,000 unique visitors, according to StatCounter
  •  My monthly visitor count has grown consistently over the last year.
A special thanks to you, the readers.  Thanks for reading the articles, for leaving comments, and for sending me emails.

If you have any special requests for the coming year, please let a comment below ...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mandarin is not "antidisestablishmentarian"

This article answers a question that most of you have been thinking about since you started learning Chinese: How does Mandarin link together the following: Mary Poppins, long English words, mermaids, and total indifference??

I took a huge amount of pride as a child being able to say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and in later years my long-word-of-choice was antidisestablishmentarianism. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what either of them meant, but because of the nature of the English language, I'm now able to note the following:


   anti-X  --> against or opposite to X
   dis-X  --> against or opposite to X
   X-ment  --> generally makes a noun out of X
   X-arian  --> having a nature of X
   X-ism  --> the system of X

Putting it all together we are not surprised to see that the dictionary provides the following definition: "opposition to the belief that there should no longer be an official church in a country". Other than the church referenc, it's quite logical.

But Mandarin doesn't always work that way. And this is part of the reason, I suspect, that so many Westerners have difficulty learning the language. (In other words, sometimes you have to learn something, and not just rely on intuitive extrapolation to guess it.)

Of course, you do get words like 'diving' (跳水, tiào​shuǐ​, literally: 'jump water'),  'mermaid' (美人鱼, měi​rén​yú, literally: ​pretty person fish) and 'chameleon' (变色龙, biàn sè lóng, literally: change colour dragon) (see this great blog for more unusual examples) - words which are neatly "built up" out of their components. But below is an example I was thinking about recently which demonstrates my point:

   无 (wú): not / without / un-
   所 (suǒ): place / actually
   谓 (wèi): to speak / to name / meaning

Our first attempt is to piece together 所 and 谓  - which gives us (according to the dictionary)
   所谓 (suǒ​wèi): so-called

It is not impossible to reverse-engineer using the definitions above ("actually" & "to name"), but if you hadn't learned the word already, you're probably unlikely to guess its meaning. That's OK - we see this a lot in Chinese.

But the next step is simply to put the "not" in front of 所谓. This should be straight forward, and I would expect the word to mean something like "not so-called". Right?  But instead we get:
   无所谓 (wú​suǒ​wèi): to be indifferent / no matter


Sorry, but even knowing the meaning of all three characters and knowing the meaning of the "meaty" part of the word, there is no way I would guess it has this definition.

This is not an excuse not to learn Mandarin. It certainly doesn't prove that Mandarin is impossible. It merely means that sometimes you have to go past the 'intuitive' - and just learn it.

If you have words that you find non-intuititive, please mention them in the comments below. I'd also love to hear from some of you who have never commented to MandarinSegments before ...

Monday, May 24, 2010

The taxi driver who taught me everything

During my recent trip to China, I spent 40 minutes in a taxi to Guilin Airport, and I got an important perspective on language learning - both a kick up the butt and a gentle pat on the head. (No, that was me doing it to myself - not the taxi driver!)

The conversation started off well, and we spoke (in Mandarin) about language learning, working in different countries, the most interesting things I did in Guilin, and so on. I felt good, I understood what he was saying, and was able to communicate my thoughts to him. This lasted about 20 minutes.

Then the conversation moved on to traffic-related topics. We were still doing fine while talking about traffic jams, dangerous driving, accidents, injuries vs deaths, and so on. But it started to go wrong at the time when he was trying to say "driver's licence" - a word I did not know. Eventually he showed me his, I said the closest word I could think of (证书, zhèng​shū, certificate/credentials) to confirm.

He agreed, and we were on track again.

But not for long.

At this point I really wasn't following him anymore, and I spent a fair amount of time saying 'ting bu dong' ("I don't understand what you're saying"). My mind started to wonder, and I started thinking about what the various English words that might be relevant here ...

roadworks, tar, pedestrians (yup I know that one), diversions, petrol (know this one too), oil (again), accelerator, brakes, parking (ting che), headlamps (I can take a guess this one), toll gates & toll fees (words that probably end in 'men' and 'fei') ...

This reminded me that to truly become fluent in a language, there really are a lot of words you need to know - there are so many words I don't know, even about cars & traffic (which is just one topic out of millions). So many more.

For a while there I became disheartened. At that stage I started talking to the taxi driver again, and he was saying that one day he would want to learn English too. And I realised that whatever language you learn, you would have to learn all these words.

Sometimes I just find myself convinced that Mandarin is ridiculously difficult, and it would be so easy if I were learning another language. But of course that's not true. Ultimately, if you're learning a new language you have to learn lots of words, sayings, and sentence structures.

So stop complaining and just get on with it.

How committed are you to your studies? How many new words did you learn today? And in the last month?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to subscribe to Mandarin Segments (for free!)

Are you already subscribed to this blog, thus getting updates automatically? (Or do you have to remember to remember to visit on a regular basis?)

Make it easy on yourself, show an additional level of commitment to your Mandarin studies, and have the updates delivered to you automatically. This is especially true for any series on this blog - where you don't want to miss an article.

You have various options:
  • this is the raw RSS feed - for however you manage your usual updates
  • subscribe using your existing feed reader (for example, if you use Gmail, MyYahoo, Newsgator, etc.)
  • have new articles emailed to you as soon as they're published here.

Remember that the above methods will only give you access to the main article. There are usually excellent contributions from other readers, which will definitely add to your understanding of the topic. So once you've got the article update, make sure you go to the online version too - to read their comments, or perhaps to leave your own.

Finally, you can always follow me on Twitter (@MandarinSx), where I will mention when a new article has been published, and provide other updates along the way.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The "sleeping cats" guide to pinyin pronunciation

How much does pinyin confuse you? Which is the worst part for you?

In this short post, I show how "cats & zeds" will help you overcome a common pronuncation mistake. (PS. I know Americans say "zee" not "zed" - but for this to work, pretend you don't.)

Pinyin is the system which provides a method for pronouncing the Chinese characters using a Roman alphabet (and tone marks). It was developed by the Chinese for the Chinese - and let's face it, although it's the system we use in the West, if Westerners had designed it, I think we would have used different letters to represent the different sounds.

c is pronounced "ts",  z is "dz", zh is like "j", x is "sh" (kinda) ... sigh.

For me, the parts I got wrong in the beginning were mainly 'c' and 'z', and even today I find myself stumbling over words like "cún​zài" (存在 - to exist) when I talk too fast for my brain.

You might have a similar problem. In fact, you might not even realise you have the problem!

For example, when I meet other students of Mandarin in London, and I listen to sentences like "I live in London" (wǒ​ zhù​ zài​ Lún​dūn​), the 'zai' is often pronounced 'tsai' and not 'dzai' - so I know I'm not the only one.

Perhaps this might help ...
    cats & zeds
    [c]a[ts] & [z]e[dz]
    c is prounced 'ts'  &  z is pronounced 'dz'

Test yourself - how do you pronounce 汉字 (Hàn​zì​ - Chinese character), 现在 (xiàn​zài​ - now), 菜单 (cài​dān​ - menu), 词典 (cí​diǎn​ - dictionary)?

So cún​zài would (phonetically) be [ts]un-[dz]ai. Got it?
Cats & Zeds. Got it?