What’s a good way to learn Chinese words?

No habla español. I don’t speak Spanish, but if you ask me to say “I am a sincere man.”, I can do that in a blink of the eye. That’s because “Yo soy un hombre sincero” is the first line of the “official” lyrics for the song “Guantanamera”. I like that song so much that I have committed it to memory, Spanish and all.

How many of you recognize a popular song or a piece of elevator music right away even if you have never sung or hummed it? You may even be able to recite part or all of the associated lyrics. This is because the songs have been repeated to you so many times that they have gotten stuck in your mind. Repetition plays a major role in memorization. It helps the language student to read the same passages, listen to the same audio tapes, or watch the same TV program or movies repeatedly. So, why not learn songs in the new language and sing them whenever and wherever you like?

The songs will be easier to learn when you are already familiar with the tunes. Take, for example, the song “The More We Get Together” included in the book “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” written by yours truly. Hearing the title of this song, have you not already begun to nod your head and tap your feet? Sing it in Chinese, and in no time at all you will know how to say (nĭ you), (wǒ I), 我們 (wǒmén we), 一起 (yīqǐ together) and (xiào smile, laugh).

Remember the song called “Love Somebody”? Sing the following simple version three times in Chinese and I’m sure you’ll have the words in the first line down pat. On the other hand, I know you’d hate me if I asked you to read this line out loud eighteen times in a row. If you’ve forgotten the music, click on this link then select “Love Somebody” to hear the tune.

我有一个心上人. Wǒ yǒu yī gè xīn shàng rén.
Love somebody. Yes, I do.
我有一个心上人. Wǒ yǒu yī gè xīn shàng rén.
Love somebody. Yes, I do.
我有一个心上人. Wǒ yǒu yī gè xīn shàng rén.
Love somebody. Yes, I do.
他是谁? 你们不要问. Tā shì shéi? Nĭmen bùyào wèn.
Love somebody, but I won’t tell who.

我有一个心上人. Wǒ yǒu yī gè xīn shàng rén.
Love somebody. Yes, I do.
我有一个心上人. Wǒ yǒu yī gè xīn shàng rén.
Love somebody. Yes, I do.
我有一个心上人. Wǒ yǒu yī gè xīn shàng rén.
Love somebody. Yes, I do.
但愿我也是他的心上人. Dànyuàn wǒ yě shì tā de xīn shàng rén.
And I hope somebody loves me, too.

(yǒu) is the verb “to have”.
(gè) is a unit of counting individual entities.
心上人 (xīn shàng rén) means someone in my heart, or sweetheart.
一个心上人 (yī gè xīn shàng rén) translates to “a sweetheart”.
你们 (nĭmen) ) is the plural you.
(shì) is the verb “to be”.
(shéi Who?) means the same as 什么人? (shénme rén Who?). 他是谁? (Tā shì shéi?) means “Who is he?” (Please note that the Chinese way of asking this question is: “He is who?”)
(bùyào wèn) is the verb “to ask”.
不要问 (bùyào wèn) means “Don’t ask.”
但愿 (dànyuàn) means “I wish” or “if only”. You could substitute it with the word 希望 (xīwàng), which means “to hope”, or “a hope”.
(yě shì) means “also”. You can see why is the character adopted for the third person (he or she).
Just as 我的 (wǒ de) means “mine”, 他的 (tā de) means “his” or “hers”.

Now, you should be able to ask someone this question in Chinese: “Who’s your sweetheart?”

If you have a question related to learning Chinese words or language rules, send me a message by using one of the “Leave a Comment” links. Before you have learned how to input the Chinese characters, you could use pinyin to spell out the Chinese words in your message. Adding the tone numbers to the pinyin will help reduce ambiguity.

Has spring arrived in your town?


This year spring starts today at 7:21 pm Eastern Daylight Saving Time when the vernal equinox takes place. This is when the sun is situated directly above the equator, and the night and day are approximately of equal length in time. In Chinese, the vernal equinox is called 春分 (chūn fēn). (chūn) is spring, and (fēn) means division or separation.

Some people believe that the forces in the universe are better balanced at this time so that it’s easier to stand an egg on its end. Others discount this claim for lack of a scientific basis. You can read all about the debate by searching the Internet for articles on balancing an egg at the time of the equinoxes. If you wish to try your hand at making an egg stand on its end, I would suggest first letting the raw egg come to room temperature. Let the egg lean against a support for a few minutes, with the large end resting on the countertop. This will permit the egg yolk to settle toward the bottom and allow the egg to readily achieve a state of stable equilibrium while you are balancing it. If that oval object, called (dàn egg), refuses to cooperate, just crack it and make a pancake or an omelet.

A standing egg

Anyhow, what interests us more here is to learn a few Chinese words related to springtime. In the days of sping, 春天 (chūntiān), we are blessed with warmer weather, which also enlivens the flowers and the birds.

春天来了! Chūntiān lái le! Spring has come!
花儿开. Huār kāi. Flowers are blooming.
鸟儿叫. Niǎor jiào. The birds call.

(ér) is a son. It is often added to another word to indicate smallness or cuteness. In this case, it’s customary to slur over this word so all one hears is the “r” sound added to the preceding word. means “to open”. The Chinese describe the action of blooming as the flowers opening up. is the action of calling or exclaiming.

In North America, the crocuses, 番红花 (fān hóng huā), are usually the first ones to peep out of the ground in spring. Two other popular early bloomers are: 水仙花 (shuǐ xiān huā daffodils) and 郁金香 (yùjīnxiāng tulips). Taken apart, the indivudial characters have the following meanings:

(fān) barbarian, a bout
(hóng) is the red color.
(huā) means flowers.
(shuǐ) is water.
(xiān) is a fairy or mythical being.
(huā) means flowers.
(yùjīnxiāng) means fragrant or depressed (sad).
(jīn) is gold or metal.
(yùjīnxiāng) means fragrant or aromatic.

The colors of the flowers are the more vivid when contrasted against a background of greenery.

(cǎo) means grass, and 草地 (cǎodì) is a lawn or a meadow.
(shù) is the word for one or more trees. The word for leaves is (yè). So, 树叶 (shùyè) are the leaves of a tree.

Those of you whose front yards are still buried under snow could close your eyes and imagine the beauty and delight of springtime. After all, it’s the emotion that one feels that matters.

Man, a radical? (continued)

Here are a few more simple characters that take (rén person) as the root.

(nèi inside, internal)
(ròu meat)
(qiū imprison, prisoner)
(liǎng two)
(zuò sit)
(jiá sandwiched between )
(lái come)

It makes sense to call one’s own wife 內人 (nèirén my wife), which, word for word, translates to “inside person”. The general term for “wife” is 妻子 (qīzi). So, 內人 (nèirén), 我的妻子 (wǒ de qīzi), and 我太太 (wǒ tàitai), all mean “my wife”. Some people refer to their wives as 我老婆 (wǒ lǎopo my old woman), which may reflect the speaker’s modesty but does not sound that great when translated to English.

Strictly speaking, some of the above characters contain the character (rù enter) rather than (rén person). With (rù enter), the slanted stroke on the right side extends beyond the slanted stroke on the left side. The printed font exaggerates the difference between these two characters. In reality, (rù enter) is simply the mirror image of (rén person).

Add another (rù) to the character (nèi inside, internal), and you’ll get the word for “meat”, (ròu).

Put a person inside a box, and you’ll get the word for confinement or imprisonment, (qiū).

You know that (èr) means “two”. (liǎng two) is also used to indicate “two”. It appropriately contains a pair of the character (rù).

Similarly, (zuò sit) contains a pair of the character (rén person). It represents two people sitting on the ground. The character for the ground or soil is (tǔ).

(jiá sandwiched between ) contains a person sandwiched between two other persons. 夾子 (jiázi) is a small tweezer. When you use your chopsticks to pick up food, the action is represented by the word (jiá).

The traditional Chinese character for the word “come” contains a pair of (rén). In the corresponding simplified character, (lái come), the two (rén) characters are reduced to a pair of tick marks.

来了 (lái le) can mean “to be coming” or “to have come”. Now, you can add one of the nouns you have learned, and form a sentence. For example, 爸爸来了 (bàba lái le).

While serving a meal to a friend, you could say:
(Lái)! 夾一塊肉吃 (Jiá yī kuài ròu chī).
Come! Help yourself to a piece of meat.

The umbrella is called: (sǎn). Doesn’t this character resemble an umbrella? Please look in your dictionary or textbook for other characters that feature a (rén) at the top.

Many Chinese characters contain the the radical (rén) on the left side. As we mentioned before, in this case, the radical takes on a squished shape to make room for the other parts of the character. You have learned that (nĭ) means “you”. The word for “he” is (tā). This word stands for “she” as well, although nowadays people often use (tā she) instead to avoid the ambiguity.

When two people are together, kindness is called for; hence the word (rén), which means kindness or benevolence.

(shí) is the number ten. A popular hand gesture among the Chinese is to cross the index fingers to represent this character.

Add (shí) to the radical (rén), and you’ll get (shí), which means “assorted” or “miscellaneous”. Understandably, if you get ten persons together, there would be an assortment of physical characteristics as well as personalities. 什么? (Shénme?) means “What?”. So, 什么人? (Shénme rén?) translates to “Who?”

Man, a radical?

Have you noticed that 爷爷 (yéye grandpa) and 爸爸 (bàba papa, dad) share the radical (fù father)?

Now, check the following list and see if you can point out the common root shared by these words.

(rén person, human being)
(dà big, large)
(tài too, excessively, top-most)
(rén dog, canine)
(tiān sky, heaven)
(fū husband, man)

That’s right. The root of the above characters is (rén human being). Whereas 女人 (nǚrén) is a female person, or a woman, 男人 (nánrén) is a male person, or a man. The top part of the character (nán male person) is (tián), which means fields or cropland; and the lower part is (lì), which represents physical strength. So, men are those human beings who work in the fields.

If you first make a horizontal stroke then add a (rén) to it, then you would get the character (dà), which stands for “big” or “large”. We know that 小孩 (xiǎohái) is a child. The word for an adult is 大人 (dàrén).

Add an extra tick below (dà big, large), and you’d get the word (tài), which means “excessively” or “supreme”. As a bonus for learning this character, 太太 (tàitai), is how one refers to one’s wife. It also represents the title “Mrs.”.

It matter where you place the tick mark in a character. If you place it in the upper-right quadrant of (dà), you’d turn it into the formal word for “dog”, . The everyday word for “dog” is (gǒu).

It also matters whether a vertical stroke pokes out of a horizontal stroke or not. For example, make a horizontal stroke then add the character (dà) beneath it. You’d get something that is bigger than “big”, namely, the sky, (tiān). If you let the first stroke of (rén) poke out of the character for sky, then you’d have written a totally different character, (fū), which means “husband”, and also stands for “man”. 夫人 (fūrén) is a respectful way of addressing a lady. So, for example, 王夫人 (Wáng fūrén) is a more respectful way of addressing Mrs. Wang than 王太太 (Wáng tàitai).

Father knows best?

So, we know that 妈妈 (māma) means “mama”. The word corresponding to “papa” is 爸爸 (bàba).
The formal words for mother and father are 母亲 (mǔqin) and 父亲 (fùqin), respectively, where (qīn) stands for kin, relative, being dear to someone, or intimacy. The word (mǔ) shows plainly the bosom of a nurturing parent. When you place this word in front of the name of any animal, it turns that animal into a female entity. So, (niú) is an ox, while 母牛 (mǔniú) is a cow.

Please remember that (mǔ) has a mammalian connotation. Never refer to a woman as a 母人 (mǔrén). The correct word is 女人 (nǚrén). By the same token, (ér) and 儿子 (érzi) refer to a son, while 女儿 (nǚér) is a daughter.

孩子 (háizi) means a child or children. (xiǎo) means little. The little children are often referred to as 小孩子 (xiǎoháizi) or 小孩儿 (xiǎoháir). Babies are 婴儿 (yīngér baby). These little bundles of joy are often called 宝宝 (bǎobǎo), which translates to “treasure”, or “sweetling”.

On the “Story Time” page of this blog, there is a link to the “My Little Sweetling” video on YouTube. How many words do you recognize in the subtitles of this video?

爷爷 (yéye grandpa) is the informal way of addressing one’s paternal grandfather. 奶奶 (nǎinai grandma) is the informal way of addressing one’s paternal grandmother. Notice the radical (nǚ) in the word for grandma? The word (nǎi) actually means breasts or milk.

As with many other cultures, the father is the figure of authority in a Chinese family. As recent as one complete Chinese zodiac cycle (60 years) ago, there was a clear division of labor in most Chinese families. The father was the breadwinner and deals with the outside world, while the mother handled “internal affairs” like cooking, cleaning and watching the children. As such, the common women had no social position to speak of. In the patriarchal society of China, the children take on the surname of the father. Therefore, the sons were regarded as truly belonging to the family, while the daughters were expected to leave and serve some other family when they grew up. This is why most expecting parents wished for sons rather than daughters.

If you get a chance to watch the Chinese movie “King of Masks”, a Shaw Brothers production, you will see the prejudice against girls clearly portrayed; and the word 爷爷 (yéye grandpa) will probably ring in your ears for quite a few days afterwards.

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