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.

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?”

How to write Chinese characters?

Now that you have learned a few Chinese words, perhaps you would like to try and write the corresponding characters. Some people talk about “drawing” the Chinese characters, and I don’t blame them. Each character does look like some kind of a symbol.

There are simple characters, like (yī one), (èr two), (sān three) and (rén person). And there are complicated ones, like (bí nose) and (dài a black pigment). By the way, one of the main characters in the famous classical Chinese novel, Dreams of the Red Mansion, is named 林黛玉 (Lín Dàiyù). (Lín) is a last name that means woods, (yù) is jade. 黛玉 (Dàiyù) means black jade.

When making a drawing, you can pretty much start wherever you please, although I would usually start with the head when I’m drawing a person. When doing a Chinese character, you will need to follow a given sequence, and that is for your own good. For one thing, if you start from a different point each time you write a character, it will be harder to remember that character than if you always execute the strokes in the same order. Compare that to typing on the QWERTY keyboard. You barely have to think when typing some English text. Your fingers “remember” the locations of the letters on the keyboard. In the same way, you can train your hand to “remember” the way to write a character by repeated execution of the same sequence. Secondly, many Chinese characters take on shared radicals. It will be wise to take advantage of the knowledge of these radicals rather than wield your pen haphazardly.

The book, “Reading & Writing Chinese” by William McNaughtan and Li Ying, shows you the definition and the sequence of the strokes for over 2000 commonly used Chinese characters. Both a Traditional Character edition and a Simplified Character edition are available. If you choose to learn the Traditional Characters, you could get the Traditional Character edition. Where a Simplified Character is available for a Traditional Character, this book also shows the corresponding Simplified Character on the side. Use the Alphabetical Index at the end of the book and your knowledge of pinyin to locate the group of characters with the same pinyin notation. Then look for the character that you are after.

There is a link to a nifty free Chinese character animation on Erik E. Peterson’s web site: http://www.mandarintools.com/ From the home page, select “Learn Chinese”. Under “Tools for Learning Chinese”, select “Learn to Draw Chinese Characters”. Under “Links for Learning to Draw Chinese Characters”, select “Characters with Animation”. The direct link to Tim Xie’s page is: http://www.csulb.edu/~txie/azi/page1.htm

You will notice that, in gneral, the strokes on the top get written before those at the bottom, and the strokes on the left side come before those on the right side of the character. Why not look up the following Chinese characters and practice writing them on paper? Yes, yes, you will need to write each character many, many times until you can do it with your eyes closed.

(nĭ you), (hǎo good), (zǎo early, morning), (wǎn late, eveneing)
(xīn new), (nián year), (kuài fast, quick, pleasurable), (lè happy)
(mǎ horse), (niǎo bird), (zài again), (jiàn see, look)

Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese?

Sorry, there is not such a thing as a simplified Chinese language. When we talk about Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese, we are strictly referring to the written Chinese characters.

As you have seen, the Chinese characters are formed by one or more of various types of strokes. Many contain over twenty strokes. To help reduce illiteracy in China, the Chinese government adopted the Simplified Character system in 1986.

Take, for example, the word (mǎ horse). Do you recognize the manes on a horses long neck, and doesn’t the remainder of this character resemble the horse’s body and its four legs?

The simplified Character for (mǎ) is (mǎ). You can see that quite a few details have been left out in the simplified version, but the general shape of the character has been retained. Similarly, compare the Traditional and Simplified Characters for the word “bird”: (niǎo), (niǎo).

In fact, before the Simplified Characters were made official, it has been the practice of the Chinese public to simplify some of the strokes when they need to write down something in haste or when they are writing to family and friends. The Chinese government took this evolution a step further and made it a revolution. Drastic changes have been made to a number of words, making them unrecognizable by a person trained on using Traditional Characters. In addition, in some cases, the same character is assigned to words that have totally different meanings, giving rise to ambiguity, and potential confusion for the beginning learner.

I will mention one example here. The Traditional Character for noodles is (miàn). On the left side of this character is the radical that means “wheat”, providing information that this food item is made from wheat. The character for the face or a facade is (miàn). In Simplified Chinese, (miàn) is used to represent both words. Granted, these two words are homonyms, but what has the face to do with noodles? Noodles in the face, perhaps?

To the purists in the Chinese communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, the Simplified Character system is an attack on the Chinese culture. It has caused much damage to the beautiful written language that can be likened to a premium wine that has been slowly aged by history. Fortunately for them, the majority of Traditional Characters have been left intact. On the other hand, from the perspective of a foreigner who is trying to learn to write in Chinese, this is unfortunate because the simplified characters are indeed easier to learn to write.

If you haven’t already looked up the Chinese character for rabbit, it is (tù). It is written the same way in the Traditional and Simplified systems. The story posted at this blog site for bilingual children shows both the Simplified Characters and the Traditional Characters. You will see that most of the Chinese characters are identical in the two versions.

You might ask, “If I learn the Traditional Characters, will it be easy for me to read the Simplified Characters?”, and vice versa. I’d say that learning the Traditional Characters will give you an edge. It would be easier to figure out what’s missing from a complicated Traditional Character than to try to recreate a complicated Traditional Character from an over-simplified character. However, you must also consider where you plan to use the Chinese you have learned. As of this writing, the Simplified Character system is used in Mainland China and Singapore, and Traditional Character system is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Please read this article for information about usage of Chinese in Singapore and Malyasia. The advocates and users of the Traditional Characters are obviously outnumbered.

Should you learn the Traditional or simplified Characters? It is up to you to make the informed decision. Of course, if all you want to learn is how to speak Chinese, then you will only need to pay attention to the pinyin phonetics, and not worry about this issue at all. I’m not totally in favor of the Simplified Character system but I find it tolerable. In view of the fact that Simplified Characters are generally easier to write, I will show the Chinese characters in my future posts as Simplified Characters. Many on-line dictionaries now provide both Simplified and Traditional Chinese chracters. Therefore, I suggest that if you are learning to write a Simplified Chinese character then eyeball the corresponding Traditional Chinese character to become somewhat familiar with it, and vice versa.

Pinyin or Bo Po Mo Fo?

I grew up learning how to read Chinese using the Zhuyin phonetic system.  This system consists of thirtysix consonant sounds and vowel sounds, each represented by a special symbol. The first 4 symbols are pronounced Bo, Po, Mo, and Fo. Therefore, the Zhuyin system is often referred to as the Bo Po Mo Fo system. It is still used by the schools in Taiwan.

No, we did not have a tune like the “ABCDEFG” song to help us learn the “alphabet”. The Bo Po Mo Fo sounds and symbols were simply crammed into us. The phonetic symbols and tone marks were placed alongside the Chinese characters in our textbooks so we would be able to sound out those even more complicated word symbols. It has been standard in Taiwan to print children’s story books and magazines with the Bo Po Mo Fo notation accompanying the Chinese characters.

I believe some Chinese instructors in the USA, who came from Taiwan, are using the Zhuyin phonetic system in their classes for the simple fact that the textbooks they have on hand employ the Bo Po Mo Fo notations.

Whereas the Zhuyin system involves special symbols, pinyin is made up entirely of letters from the English alphabet plus the tone marks. It’s a no-brainer that it will be a more intuitive phonetic system for the English-speaking students. It is also a natural for entering Chinese text using  the QWERTY keyboard – There is no need to remember which keys represent which special symbol, or to paste the Bo Po Mo Fo symbols on the keys as some of my friends do.

My vote goes to pinyin.

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