Sunday, February 20, 2011

In space, no-one can hear you learn vocabulary

There's a great little character (actually it's the same size as all other characters :-) that comes up really often in Mandarin, so it's worth spending a moment with it.

If you're a beginner, the content of this article may be new to you; and even if you're intermediate, then there are probably still words that are new.

Overall in the WordPack context, this is an example of what we discussed recently about being an active learner, when reasonable beavers co-operate.

The root of all time & space
Our starting point is 间 (間) which is pronounced 'jiān'. You can get the full definition at MDBG, but for our purposes, it comes down to "time & space".

When 间 (jiān) is used to mean 'space', these are some of the resulting words:

空间 (kōng​jiān) space (literally empty space)
房间 (fáng​jiān) room (literally house space)​
洗手间 (xǐ​shǒu​jiān) bathroom (literally wash hands room)
雅间 (yǎ​jiān) private room
田间 (tián​jiān) farming area / village (literally field space)

When 间 (jiān) is used to mean 'time', these are some of the resulting words:

时间 (shí​jiān​) time (perhaps literally this is: time space)
日间 (rì​jiān​) day-time (literally sun time)
夜间 (yè​jiān​) night-time (literally night time)
北京时间 (Běijīng Shíjiān​) Chinese Standard Time
格林尼治标准时间 (Gé​lín​ní​zhì​biāo​zhǔn​shí​jiān​) Greenwich Mean Time, GMT (ignore the literal meaning here, this is more of a transliteration)

Special Mentions
I've put these into a separate group because they have a bit of an 'angle' on them:

之间 (zhī​jiān) between
外层空间 (wài​céng​kōng​jiān) outer space (literally outside stratum empty space)
空间站 (kōng​jiān​zhàn) space station (literally empty space platform)
网络空间 (wǎng​luò​kōng​jiān) cyberspace
三维空间 (sān​wéi​kōng​jiān) three-dimensional space
坐标空间 (zuò​biāo​kōng​jiān) coordinate space (maths)
拓扑空间 (tuò​pū​kōng​jiān) topological space (maths)

How many of these words will you remember next week?  Are you really progressing over time?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reasonable beavers co-operate

The meeting

I was in a meeting in Taipei recently which was being run in Mandarin. Although I was able to follow the general flow of the discussion, the extensive use of technical terms meant I was really missing the meaty bits.

There was one word which, during part of the debate, kept coming up: "hé li" (although I couldn't quite get the tone on the second character, given the pace of debate).

Back at the office, I looked it up in my usual MDBG dictionary, and saw a few words that matched 'heli', being:

   合理    hé​lǐ​    rational / reasonable / fair
   河狸    hé​lí​    beaver
   合力    hé​lì​    cooperate

These words

These are all good words, I decided, and I didn't want to forget them. So I copied them into my flashcard pack. However, rather than copying them as separate words, I thought their similarity made them easier to learn as a pack (in the usual WordPack logic), like this:

   合理 / 河狸 / 合力
   hé​lǐ / hé​lí / hé​lì​
   reasonable / beaver / co-operate

(And amusingly, each time one of these words come up, I immediately hear the sentence "reasonable beavers co-operate" in my head. Now I'll never forget!)

This article

I wrote this short article, not specifically to teach you these three words (although it would be a pity if you didn't take the time to learn them quickly now), but to challenge your thinking ...

When you come across a new word, what thoughts go through your mind?
  • [no thoughts]
  • Oh, that's a new word (... now what's for lunch?)
  • I will come back and memorise it later
  • I'll quickly memorise it now
  • Do I know any synonyms for that word?
  • What other words sound the same?
  • Let me try make a sentence with that word
  • I will use that word at least once today (and also once tomorrow (and also once next week (and also ...)))
Just to be clear, I don't have the time to do this with every new word I discover, but I do it often enough that I definitely have a materially larger vocab than I would otherwise if I didn't practise active learning.

The Truth

How active a learner are you?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Heisig: my just desserts

I was reminded recently that there is a large gap between knowing individual Chinese characters, and being able to understand what the entire phrase or sentence might mean.

This is already an idea I know well, I certainly mentioned it a few times in my series on learning to read using the Heisig system, and I've left numerous comments on others' blogs to that effect.

Nevertheless, I felt this example was 'extreme' enough to be worth sharing.

As you can see from the photo attached, there is an item on this late-night dessert place, which says:

(By the way, I did screw up a bit by initially confusing the 杏 character with 否. Forgive me?)

Anyway ... so doing what I normally do, I tried to work out what the dessert was. Actually, from my Heisig days, I knew the meaning of every character, which are as follow:
    = South North apricot wood melon snow ear

I had no idea what that was!   (All I could guess was that there was melon in there.)

It's easy enough to put this through a dictionary, but even here, it doesn't get much better, because I'm still left with:
    = South North apricot [papaya] snow ear

Upon discussing this with a HK friend, it turns out that the expressions are Cantonese in nature, and so knowing Mandarin (or using a Mandarin dictionary) isn't going to help much. But I persisted ...

Now, using human input and a Cantonese dictionary, I discover that the grouping should be as follows:
    (almond)(papaya)(white fungus)

Aside: According to Wikipedia, apricot kernels are sometimes used instead of bitter almonds, but it seems to be accepted in HK amongst those I spoke to that when they see 南北杏 they generally take it to mean 'almond'. White Fungus, in this case, does indeed look more ear-like than mushroom-like.

So there we have it. (Although *I* didn't have it.  No, I ate some kind of warm red bean soup instead. Mainly because I didn't need a dictionary for that one!).

Chinese seems hard, but it's actually harder than that! :-)

Can you recall any specific words that you learned along the way where the word or phrase looks *nothing* like the characters which make it up? If so, please leave a comment below.