Thursday, October 8, 2009

Vocabulary Review Sheets

Pipe Island - 12
Originally uploaded by Qingdao Adventures
If you're thinking about learning to read, check out this new study resource - printable vocabulary review sheets. These fold-over review sheets are based on my book, Very Practical Chinese including all the vocabulary from the dialogues, exercises, and the accompanying Study Guide. The review sheets are free for anybody to download, print and use. Check them out here.

Start off with the chapter-by-chapter sheets, and move up to the randomized sheets. Right now I have files with a random selection of vocabulary words taken from Chapter 1 and 2, and also files with random vocabulary words from Chapters 1 thru 4. I will post more randomized sheets soon, eventually having a random selection from Chapters 1 - 20, and even Chapters 1 - 45 ~ the idea being that if you can look at characters completely out of context and still know the English definition, Pinyin spelling and tone, then when it comes to reading them in context, you'll be laughing.

Come on! Learn to read!! Don't buy the line that it's not necessary. Don't be scared that it's too hard. It is not that hard and it is so rewarding, and, I dare say, necessary, if you want your Chinese to progress beyond a certain level. And the fact of the matter is that learning how to read characters (by memorizing the correct Pinyin spelling and tone for a character, in addition to the Englsih definition) will ensure that you teach yourself to speak properly! As a bonus, you'll be able to type in Chinese (in Pinyin), and thus able to text, to blog, to email.

There are a few sample sheets scanned for you to take a look at, and (at the risk of overkill) a "how to" PDF as well. Fold them over one way to write the Pinyin and English. Fold them over the other way if you are learning to handwrite characters. Remember to fold them back over to correct your mistakes.

You can use them in conjunction with the Line-by-Line Flashcards, the Fill-in Pinyin Sheets, and the VPC Online Flashcards. All of these materials are based on the VPC Textbook and Study Guide. Keep an eye out for more to come!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The object of my love

The object of my love
Originally uploaded by ulysses68
It's not common for a book to inspire such abject love, but I am in total agreement with the photographer and (I assume) fellow student of Mandarin.

The object of my love is Chinese Characters - A Genealogy and Dictionary, by Rick Harbaugh. I discovered this dictionary 10 years ago in Caves Bookstore, and subsequently wore my way through two copies, spending many happy, sun drenched afternoons in coffee shops, too interested in what I was reading to notice that I was, in fact, studying.

This is a Chinese-English dictionary designed by a native English speaker for native English speakers. There are six different indexes to locate a word, which I generally use in this order:

Character Pronunciation
English -Chinese
Word Pronunciation
and, as a last resort
Stroke order (which actually can be quite painless if you know how to count your strokes correctly)

Using the various indexes above, within a few months of discovering this dictionary, I was able to find absolutely ANY unfamiliar character in under a minute.

What makes this etymological dictionary so ingenious is the author's use of character "trees". The easiest way to find a new word is to look up a character (using the character pronunciation, i.e. the BPMF sound) that looks similar to the unfamiliar character.

Here's an example of how spending a few minutes with this book quickly turns into a few engrossing hours:

Faced with the character 鞍, I look for a word/element that I know within it. In this case, I choose 女or 安, either of which end up leading me to the same tree: 女(woman) at tree 54. 安 (peace) is 54/10, and just a little further down the branch, we find 鞍(saddle) at 54/13. 鞍 is pronounced "an1" and takes its phonetic component from 安, not from its radical, which the dictionary helpfully informs me can be found at 74/2.

I don't know much about this character, but have seen it at the side of many characters, and flip to 74/2 to discover that 革 (leather) is the left-side radical for many words, including 勒, a character which has a component I recognize, 力. I am curious to see what the combination of 革(leather) and 力(strength) mean, and turn to 34/13 to find out, and see that 力is actually a pictograph of a tendon (31/1) and 勒 is "leather that works like a tendon" = bridle; to force; and to tighten, and is part of the compound word le4suo3 勒索 (to extort).

From here, my eye jumps back up to 力, and I take a look at the list of compound words that begin with this character, including:
力量 li4liang4 (power; strength)
力氣 li4qi4 (physical strength)
力求 li4qiu2 (strive for)
力爭 li4zheng4 (struggle for)

In the list of compound words above in which 力 is the second character (there are 57) 魅力jumps out at me. I sort of recognize the first character, so I flip to 77/36 to see what it means. As it turns out, 魅 means "demon; elf" and 魅力 means charisma ("demon strength")

I could go on and on...and on... but you get the idea:)

You can check out the online version here, which is a handy resource, but not as much fun as the real book, which is just an invitation (paraphrasing Old Walt) to lean and loafe with a book rightfully deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Wackiest, Wildest Dictionary I Have EVER SEEN

I love 李開榮(hereafter to be refered to as LiKaiRong). It's a sick and twisted kind of love, but I can't help myself. I often think of him and wonder what colour the sky is in his world, and if he has categorized it as he has everything else in the world...

LiKaiRong is the author of Chinese-English Classified Encyclopedic Dictionary, which I picked up at the Taipei 101 Eslite a few years ago. Don't let the generic title fool you...this book is sick, it's addictive, and at only 200NT, it's a bargain at 10 times the price for hours upon hours of fun. For years upon years.

The Chinese-English Classified Encyclopedic Dictionary, or LiKaiRong's Extravaganza Bonanza as I like to call it, is 1657 pages of cagegorized lists of anything and everything you can imagine. The Table of Contents alone is 64 pages long. It's 3" thick, a literal brick of a book. Each page has roughly 75 words on it, so it's got about 125,000 words and phrases. It's not so much that it's a categorized dictionary, it's what he's categorized and how, something I could only imagine doing:
a)with a team of 100 plus biddable minions working around the clock for a year steady
b)on a permanent acid trip

Take, for example, one of my favorite lists in this book (although I'm constantly discovering new faves, I always come back to this one), "Minute Details of Daily life". Many of the entries are singularly bizarre. I don't know about your daily life routine, but mine is pretty boring and mundane, especially when juxtaposed to LiKaiRong's, who apparently does these things (and assumes the rest of us do as well?) on a daily basis:

walking(/running)unsteadily in a zigzag
dragging somebody along against his will
having a snowball fight
twitching the eyelid
feeling too ashamed to face people
pouting one's lips
hitting somebody on the right side of the head
giving presents to one's elders or superiors
itching all over
picking one's ears

and, my personal favorite (well, it was a toss-up between this one and "dragging somebody along against his will", which is certainly an activity I try to fit into my daily routine)...

hanging oneself

The above is just a sampling of the many puzzling activities on this list, but even more puzzling is the fact that the list does not solely consist of verbs or verb phrases, which you might assume it would. Maybe it's just me, but I see "details of daily life" as requiring an action (to achieve the repetition that "daily life" implies). But LiKaiRong thinks differently (understatement!), and includes nouns (bound feet, a pot of porridge, monstorous lie, wicked idea) and adjectives (careless;crude;coarse,foolish looking,crafty and evil), with a few random proverbs thrown in for good measure.

If you look at the Chinese characters, you see that he orders them by stroke order/radical, i.e. (一, 八, 大 小, 三, 上, 巴,etc.) but this still doesn't explain how most of these words or phrases a)came to mind or b)seemed remotely suitable. (I know many native Mandarin speakers, none of whom could have compiled this list, or the thousand others like it).

There are so, so many other lists in this book which I would like to call your attention to, but for now I must go....but should you want to buy a copy of this wonderful book, it is hardcover, a 5x7 brick 3" thick, with a red and blue (and green stripe at the top) jacket. Its Chinese name is 漢英百科分類詞典, and it was published by 萬人出版(tel:(02)298-0501), in 1996. Last seen in Eslite, but that was years ago. Please, somebody, find it. Buy it. Love it. I can't be the only one to appreciate this gem (well, maybe I can be, and indeed am, but I sincerly hope not and am fixing to start a fanclub as soon as I hear back from any of you soon-to-be converts!)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Learning to Read - Baby Steps!

Web Dew
Originally uploaded by Reiffhaus
So you've decided to learn to read and write Chinese - or if you're still on the fence and looking for a few more reasons to, read this.

But if you don't know any characters, how do you start? It seems a bit daunting!

I've developed a way for beginners to learn to recognize characters, based on the books I've written (with the help of my two wonderful editors, both native Mandarin speakers AND Chinese teachers). This set of books is comprised of a textbook called Very Practical Chinese - 45 Conversations to Know (VPC for short), which includes 16 hours of MP3 compatible audio, and its companion, the VPC Study Guide, which breaks down each line of the dialogue. Our books focus on everyday conversations and making grammar easy and accessible. They also have a huge glossary, heaps of slang, idioms, tongue twisters and jokes. You can read more about them here.

Once finished, I started to think about supplementary materials to help my readers learn to read and write. I came up with "Black Out" Photocopiable Templates that let the reader cover parts of the dialogue in order to test their memory. From here, I made "Fill-in Pinyin" Templates, printable worksheets where the Pinyin and English gloss are whited out, leaving space for you to write your answer and test yourself!

From there, it struck me that for beginners, bigger would be better! That, and a way to be interatctive with the characters, which seems to be a better way to memorize new information than just passively staring at it (think of the "Memory" card game we all played as kids), and so the "Line-by-Line Flashcards" were born. I've got Chapters 1 thru 9 done (more are on the way). The idea is to arrange the cards while listening to the dialogue, or from memory. Then see if you know the tones for each of the characters in every line (best accomplished by using on of the "Fill-in" Templates at the same time). Finally, flip them over to see the tones!

If you've already learned a few hundred characters, these are too remedial for you, I think, but if you're brand new at it, they're a very good way to cut your teeth and ease your way into memorizing characters!

Best of all, you can try my system for free! Simply:

1. Open a Sample Chapter from the VPC Book (Ch.1, 2, and 3) are online and its accompanying audio files. (You'll find the Study Guide Notes for each here as well.)

2. Go to the Line-by-Line Flashcards for Ch.1, 2, 3. Print them on double sided paper.

Give it a try and see:) I'm about to post new worksheets on my website that I call "Fold-over" Vocabulary Reivew Sheets, which will be great to jump to after you've gotten a few hundred characters memorized using the Line-by-Line Flashcards.

For those of you who prefer to review new words and characters on your computer, Online Flashcards for the VPC Chapters (through to Chapter 24), which were created by my industrious student, Bruce, are now available! He has graciously made them available to other students at Flashcard exchange, for which I am greatly indebted to him. Check out the VPC Online Flashcards here!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Five Reasons YOU Should Learn to Read and Write in Chinese

1. Your curiosity has gotten the better of you.
Admit want to know what all those neon street signs say. You want to be able to read the menu, instead of looking at the pictures. (The latter is far more likely to impress your date!) You're not illiterate in your native tongue, nor would you likely learn to only speak French or Italian."Oh", but you say, "Chinese is different!" You might not believe it, but trust me...

2. It's not as hard as it looks.
Take a look around you, and say to yourself, "If they could do it, so can I!" Of course, having learned as children, they had something of an advantage, but on the other hand, with technology where it is now, you don't have to tediously copy characters dozens or hundreds of times (like they did). YOU can...

3. Learn to type, (not handwrite) characters
It's a hundred (if not a thousand) times easier to recognize a character when it's in front of you than it is to recall if from memory and re-create it stroke by stroke. You could, of course, learn to painstakingly handwrite characters if you're a purist (or a masochist)...but why, when it's soooooo much easier to type, using a phonetic system, either Pinyin or BPMF, to input the sound, and then choose the character (or compound word) you desire from a list.

4. Literacy opens up your study options
Once you can read and type, suddenly so many more study avenues are open to you. You can keep keep a diary, write letters, and go online to find a ton of websites, online dictionaries and newspapers... CSL (Chinese as a Second Language) is really starting to emerge as a field of interest, and it's only going to get more popular as more and more people study what is destined to be THE language of the 21st century.

5. It's not all work...
Texting, MSN, chatrooms, blogs - once you can read and type, you can communicate in Chinese! Whether texting your language exchange buddy to ask what time your lunch date is, reading (and replying to!) an interesting blog, or chatting with someone next door (or half a world away) on MSN, once you are literate you can be a social butterfly! (Or a Don Juan!)

How to get started:
Granted, if you can't read a lick of Chinese it might seem a bit daunting, but I have a plan for you! Read this!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mastering Tone - 1st to 4th Combinations

For a good first to fourth tone transition, you're required to start with a rock steady first tone. To do this, spend a bit of time to find "your" first tone pitch. How high or low it is depends entirely on your voice and tonal comfort range. A good base first tone is one where you can easily move two notes (steps/levels, if you prefer) up and two down, without straining your voice.

Once you've established your base first tone, practice a clear, confident first tone that does not waiver or falter. I'd liken it to walking in a straight line/on a balance beam, but that's too slow, and implies too much effort. Your first tone is clear and effortless, so imagine you are floating down a river, being carried along by a brisk current in a smooth, tranquil river.

To go from this steady clear first tone to fourth tone, imagine you're gliding down the river, only to suddenly be carried off the edge by the waterfall, landing into the pool "two steps" below.

The trick is the making the pivotal point where you transition from first to fourth as much like a 90 degree angle as possible. You have to totally shift gears and drop like a stone from a clear, melodic sing-song first tone with no hesitation whatsoever.

Some first to fourth combinations to practice are:

bing1kuai4 冰塊 (icecube)
gao1xing4 高興 (happy)
fa1xian4 發現 (discover)
gong1zuo4 工作 (work)
yin1yue4 音樂 (music)
ba1gua4 八卦 (gossip)
sheng1ri4 生日 (birthday)

Also practice 4 - 1 - 4 combinations, where you have to fall swiftly and emphatically from your first tone to fourth, then you have to JUMP UP again to first, only to fall right back down to fourth. The most important aspect of this combination is the jump up to first. If there is even the slightest hint of an upward climb (slide, veer, amble, digression...), you've suddenly made your first tone into second.

So visualize: Falling down - jumping up (like you're Superman, or the superhero of your choice, leaping effortlessly to the top of a building) - then gliding along effortlessly in the river of first tone, only to and fall down again into the cool waterfall!

Some 4 - 1 - 4 AND 1 - 4 - 1 combinations to practise are:

Ni3 yao4 chi1 dan4bing3 ma? 你要吃蛋餅嗎? Do you want to eat danbing?
Yi4 bei1 dou4jiang3 一杯豆漿 a glass of soy milk?
Fei1lv4bin1 菲律賓 The Philippines
Wo3 dui4 ba1gua4 hen3 you3 xing4qu4 我對八卦很有興趣. I'm very interested in gossip.
Wo3 dui4 peng1ren4 hen3 you3 xing4qu4 我對烹飪很有興趣. I'm very interested in cooking.

Try taping yourself and listening with a critical ear. Also, if possible, have a native speaker critique your tones. Repeat until he/she is satisfied with how you're saying times (this could take 5 times or 25 or 50 times - but if you have someone patient enough listen to and correct you, take advantage of this opportunity!!)

Good Luck! 加油!!!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Number Slang!

tokyo night walker.
Originally uploaded by brewskizzlr
In my book, Very Practical Chinese, I've included a whole page of number slang. I find this concept fascinating - we have our own "number slang terms" in English - to be "86'd"; "69" or "420" (a popular one in Vancouver:) to name a few, but Taiwanese people have us beat, as they have dozens upon dozens of number combinations that many use on a daily basis to send a quick text/email.

The first one I encountered was "88". 8 is pronounced "ba" in Mandarin, and thus "88" means "Bye-Bye" (an English loan word). There's also the slightly more Chinese sounding "881" (Buh-bye-eee).

My editors and I have compiled a list of 30 of the most common number expressions. Each number corresponds to a similar sounding character(s). Sometimes it's a bit of a these cases they might sound more like the Taiwanese pronunciation. Sometimes, interestingly, they rhyme (as with "di", which rhymes with the pronunciation of seven, i.e. "qi").

At any rate, here is a list of numbers 0-9 and some of the characters paired with each:

1 - yi (一one, 意meaning, 依to rely upon) and sometimes ni (你/妳you)
2 - ni (你/妳you), e (餓hungry)
3 - xiang (think/miss sb.想), sheng (生born), shei (誰who)
4 - shi (是to be), si (死death), xin (信believe), shi (世world)
5 - wo (我I), wei (唯only),
6 - nian (念miss), la (啦particle - enthusiasm/impatience), liao (bored), lao (老old), le (了particle)
7 - qing (請please), qu (去go), cai (猜guess), qi (氣energy; anger)
8 - bu (不no), bian (變change), bao (抱), ba(吧particle, indicates uncertainty, sometimes used to soften the tone of a statement/make a suggestion; bie (別imperative, i.e. don't ___),
9 - zou (走walk; leave), jiu (酒alcohol)
0 - ni (你/妳you)

And here are a few of the number slang expressions. There are many more in the VPC textbook, available at:

0452 妳是我唯一 "You are my only one."
0748 你去死吧 "Go to hell!"
360 三念你 "Thinking of you."
520 我愛你 "I love you."
596 我走了 "I'm off; I'll be going now."
729 去喝酒 "Let's get a drink." (lit: go-drink-alcohol)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Have you seen my baopi?

What's in my bag?
Originally uploaded by loupix
The first week I was in Taiwan, my then-boyfriend and I went out for dinner with a group of expats and their Taiwanese friends. Late in the evening, and many bottles of Taiwan beer later, another foreigner came in and started speaking with great intensity to the group. Half of our group was composed of native English speakers, so I don't see why he spoke to us in earnest Mandarin, (which seemed, to our virgin ears, at least, to sound pretty good) but he did, and we sat their mystified as the people at our table all turned red and looked at their feet. The explosion of hilarity that followed on the heels of his departure was explained by our new friend Don as follows:

Apparently, the man had left his "baopi" right here on this table and had we seen it? His "baopi" was very important to him and he needed it back, and would we please call him if we saw his "baopi", etc. etc.

I'm unsure as to why no one corrected him - perhaps no one wanted to let him lose face (in the process losing face themselves) or, more likely and less charitably, perhaps they just liked hearing a man talk about how much his foreskin meant to him - not a topic you hear every day!

Anyone studying Chinese has mixed up the syllables of compound words, but few combinations are as memorable when you mix them up as this one, so remember:

pi2bao1皮包 = wallet
bao1pi2包皮 = foreskin

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mastering Tone - 4th to 2nd Combinations

Certain tone combinations seem harder than others for beginners to get a handle on, some of which are more surprising than others. I would have thought that 4th to 2nd would be pretty much an open and shut case, but it's proved to be a challenging combination for my student to (consistently) master.

The problem doesn't seem to be with the 4th tone syllable, which is swift, emphatic, and drops enough in pitch, but rather with his inability to start his ascent from the precise point where his 4th tone ends.

If this sounds like your problem too, try visualizing this scenerio:

Imagine that you are diving into a pool. A perfect dive (like the picture on the right) where your voice falls in pitch as quickly and effortlessly as your body would cut through the water.

You must touch the bottom of the pool. Only after you have touch the bottom do you turn, crouch, and then push yourself up.

Now,let your second tone rise, as effortlessly as your body would seamlessly be propelled to the surface of the water.

Some 4th - 2nd tone combinations to practice are:

wen4ti2 (問題problem)
lu4cha2 (綠茶green tea)
fa4guo2 (法國France)
Yin4ni2 (印尼Indonesia)
Tai4guo2 (泰國Thailand)
Yue4nan2 (越南Vietnam)
da4ren4 (大人adult)
er4shi2 (二十twenty)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

No Sleeping in the Dumpling Shop! (A.K.A. The Importance of Tone)

shopping for dumpling
Originally uploaded by melitta
"Ooooohhhh," my friend groaned after indulging in a feast of yummy (but filling!) dumplings, "Shuijiao make me shuijiao" he drawled, rolling on the couch.

Dumplings = 水餃 = shui3 jiao3
Sleep = 睡覺 = shui4 jiao4

We all laughed along with him. A few months before, he had railed against the shop owner who hadn't understood his request for dumplings. He conceded that his tones might have been a bit off, but, "I was in a dumpling shop!! I mean, come on! Did they really think I was saying that I wanted to sleep??"

I've thought about this for many years now and I've concluded that this is precisely what they thought in the first minute after he spoke. After all, it's what he announced upon coming into their shop, and it seems to me that the function of language is to avoid/minimize the need for second guessing. We naturally accept what someone says at face value, even if it doesn't make sense, before resorting to considering other options, which is more work.

In my own life, as an ESL teacher, I often am confronted with sentences that don't make sense, all because of a slight pronunciation error. For example, many native Chinese speakers have trouble with English vowel sounds, in particular distinguishing (or seeing the need to distinguish) long from short vowels.

After a decade of being perplexed at least once a class by mispronunciation, I know for a fact that I as a native speaker take a sentence at face value before considering other alternatives, and I'm inclined to think that most people do the same.

The best example I have is the time when I asked my class what they did over the weekend. After throwing the question out to my group, I looked expectantly at the first student in the row of desks strung out in a half circle around the room, a pretty, unassuming girl with a nice smile.

"Bitch," she promptly answered.

"Pardon me?" I said, slightly taken aback.

"Bitch," she repeated, before helpfully adding with a smile, "I yesterday go to bitch."

"Oh, beach! You went to the beeeeeeeeach" I said, relieved I wasn't being cursed at.

"Yes, beeeitch, I went to the beeeeeeitch" she repeated, making a slightly modified yet still incorrect stab at the word in question.

We spent the next 20 minutes practising "bitch" vs. "beach" along with a bunch of other examples, "hit/heat", "rip/reap", etc. Judging from a few of their expressions, I'm sure many of them thought I was nit-picking. Surely, they must have been saying to themselves, such a small difference in pronunciation wouldn't make a big difference.

But it did, because when I hear a sentence that doesn't make sense, I don't immediately come up with a mental list of possible substitutions for the word in question. I think I'm predisposed to give whatever they're saying a shot, more than to substitute vowel sounds and think of other more likely words that would better fit their sentence. That comes a minute later, when it's clear we are miscommunicating. But in the first moment, I believe what I'm hearing. Hence, I thought Sandy was calling me a bitch.

Likewise, I think that the folks in the dumpling restaurant thought my friend had wandered into the wrong place. Maybe he had mistaken their shop for a hotel, maybe he was just a bit odd and said random things to people. I'm sure that with a minute or two of gestures and pointing, they understood that he did indeed want to eat dumplings and not sleep, but in the first minute, they heard sleep.

Tone is something most native English speakers must battle to understand the importance of, because we don't have it, but before raging against the native speaker that "refuses" to understand you, I ask you to play the long/short vowel game in English and see how well you do, i.e:
"Tap/tape the table.", "I need a mat/mate.", "Wrap/rape the flowers please." And on and on...

The bottom line is:
Don't underestimate the all importance of tone. (Or you might be getting directions to the nearest hotel instead of your dinner!)

Tone - Starting on the right foot

My Daughter 5 years old
Originally uploaded by
While there are many advantages to being self taught, one of the disadvantages is that the learner tends to pick and choose what's important to him/her. In my case,I decided that learning tones per se really didn't matter that much - as long as I mimicked what I heard acurately.

That was not a good idea.

It's way way WAY better to learn your tones as you go, and to be (or rather, have your teacher/native speaker friend be) vigilant about your pronunciation. I had to spend a lot of time learning tones and how to speak correctly long after I started studying, and I can tell you that it's not the way to go.

I managed to improve my tones (thus elevating my Chinese) after the fact with lots of practice and constant repetition. It was work, it's still work, but it's worth it. I spend a lot of time listening and repeating. I listen and repeat the dialogues from my book, Very Practical Chinese while I'm doing housework. I listen and repeat Youtube clips. I also started writing out paragraphs (once I had finished the dialogues) to make sure I knew the proper pinyin/tone for each character. I learned the hard way that mimicking a native speaker is important, but knowing the tones that you're trying to mimick is of vital importance; otherwise, there's a strong likelihood that when you try to "mix and match" your sentences, you'll screw your tones up. Remember... (this is your mantra!) Tone Is Everything. (well, almost everything!)

Monday, July 27, 2009

More funny tattoos (A.K.A. Everyone Loves their Little Sister!)

One of my students shared this one with me and it just made my day...very funny! I wish I had seen it myself, but who knows, maybe I'll run into her one day.

My student saw a girl with the character 妹妹 (mei4 mei) tattooed on the back of her neck. 妹妹 means, "little sister"'s too bad that in Taiwan it's also slang for "vagina".


I know I shouldn't, but I hope this girl actually has an interest in Chinese. Perhaps she'll travel to Taiwan or China, where she can have earnest conversations galore in broken Chinese with locals desperately trying to maintain a poker face in the midst of such gems as "I love my little sister"..."My little sister is very important to me"...I guess "I love to play with my little sister" might be too much to hope for, but then again, maybe not...I could go on, but you can think of more on your own!

Moral of the story: Chinese characters are great. Many tattoos are great. Chinese tattoos CAN BE great - just do your homework!

I told my co-worker this story. She has The Tao tattooed on her back, and told me that she brought three versions of it to the Chinese Studies department of her university, to find out which one was the most accurate/most beautiful, and to make sure there were no mistakes/typos.

Seems like a good way to go.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ta-ta-ta = fun fun fun!

Have you ever thought about the Chinese pronoun "ta"?

It can be written 他/她/牠/它 (he/she/it(animal)/it(inanimate object), but it's pronounced ta/ta/ta/ta.

"Hhhmph!", I remember another foreigner scoffing, years ago, upon making the discovery that, "in Chinese, they only have ONE WAY to say he, she, and it. In English we have THREE." (She had an admirable grasp of the obvious.) It's clear what she was implying, which was flawed from the get go. Languages don't compete with each other, nor can they be compared to one another in this way, especially languages as different as Mandarin and English. Not that this stops newbies from engaging in this sort of "My language is better than yours" talk.

This comment, years ago, got me thinking about the "ta" issue.

Anyone with even a basic understanding of Chinese knows that the Chinese have a word for everything. Seriously, not joking. "Younger female cousin on my mother's side" ~ there's a word for it. "The sores you get on the inside of your mouth when you eat too much pineapple" ~ yup, there's a word for that too. "The sound that a skirt makes as it gently billows in the breeze". Yes, that one too, and thousands and thousands more...and more. It's super cool. And supremely specific.

So it seems obvious that it was a deliberate choice to keep the SPOKEN "ta" the same for he/she/it(thing and animal). But why?

Well, because a spoken gender neutral pronoun is very useful. It makes it easy to talk about a friend in detail without revealing his or her gender. This is very useful if your girlfriend asks you who you had lunch with and you don't really want to say that it was with a girl. You can say, "Oh, an old friend. I know ta from high school." Of course, you can try the old "they/them" trick in English, i.e."An old friend...I know them from high school." but it's not the same as with the English listener immediately registers the fact that you are deliberately masking "their" gender.

Not so with Chinese. And if you're gay, it's even better. You can have whole conversations about a person your co-worker/acquaintance assumes is a woman (but it's a man) or vice versa. I've hardly ever heard the question "是男的他還是女的?" (Is that the male "ta" or female "ta"?) and I've had plenty of conversations where it could have been asked, but never was. Why?

I think that it's because it's polite to ask questions in Chinese culture - to show you care. Ergo, the language has many built-in "features", so to speak, that allow you to evade topics you don't wish to discuss and avoid giving out information you don't wish to reveal. That's why you can say "我有事" (I have something to do) and no one asks you "什麼事?" (What "thing" do you have to do?). It's rude to ask, as it's understood that the speaker doesn't care to elaborate. Ditto with identifying gender. The listener generally waits until the speaker chooses to identify the subject's gender "我女的朋友" (My girl friend, i.e. friend who is a girl).

Oooh, now there's an interesting point: when you choose to be specific about your relationship with someone, you can be VERY specific, much more so than in English. You can say 我的女朋友 = my girlfriend OR 我的女的朋友 = my girl friend. In English, we have to point out that we are "just friends, using way more syllables than Chinese to get the meaning across that this a platonic friend only. Whereas with Chinese, you just add the 的 and it's crystal clear!

But back to gender neutral "ta" - try having a conversation with a subject whose gender you deliberately keep ambiguous by using "ta" - and see for yourself! It's fun, interesting, and sometimes, very useful!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Department store studying

If you live in big city or even a small city in Taiwan, you know find a large at least one, if not several department stores. One of my favorite "out and about" ways to study in Taiwan is while ensconced in one of these odes to consumer excess. While busy on evenings and weekends, they are all but deserted during the day. So if you can find time on, say, a Tuesday or Wednesday mid-afternoon, you'll find between five and ten floors of bored shop girls. (This was true before the global recession and is bound to be doubly true now.)

My advice is to start at the top and work down. It helps, (but isn't necessary) to look up a few vocabulary words (i.e. clothing, home decor items, colours, electronics) and then just go for it. When I did this, I made up plausible conversation starters and little mock dialogues which became the basis of the conversation book I ended up writing.

Most of the time, the conversation transitions relatively seamlessly from whatever you're "thinking about" buying to other topics(where you're from, what you do, etc.)

I used to start at the top and work my way down through the departments. Sometimes I'd stay for a few hours, other times just for ten or fifteen minutes, but it was always a worthwhile venture.

Hopefully this tip helps and you see your next trip window shopping at your local department store for what it can be: a free Chinese class! Good Luck and fun!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Funny Chinese Tattoos

Here is a link to a fun website:

It explores the misuse of Chinese characters/Japanese Kanji by Westerners. (Perhaps we could be kind and say “misguided” use?) It’s a phenomenon for which any Westerner who has taken the time to learn characters has one or two good stories, given the explosion in popularity of Chinese tattoos in recent years.

My first experience with wacky Chinese tattoos (on an equally wacky but hopefully not too demented person) was in Taiwan, when I ran into a man with the character 惡 tattooed on his upper chest. By co-incidence, it was one of the few I knew. Upon first seeing it, I remember thinking it was quite Celtic looking and rather pretty looking. I wondered if this man had made the same mistake, and asked him if he knew what it meant. He said, “Yes, it means evil, and it’s on my heart because I have an evil heart.” Erm, okay…I backed up (I’m sure my face conveyed my shock) and that was the end of that conversation. I wonder what Mr. Evil Heart is doing today…

While on the beach just the other day I commented on the tattoo that another dog owner had prominently displayed on his bicep. “So you’re a tiger,” I ventured. The man looked rather nonplussed and said that he was, and the conversation didn’t go anywhere, which left me wondering if he thought he had tattooed some mystical symbol on his arm, one that only wise and learned stoics could decipher, rather than what it really was for the billion plus people who read Chinese or Japanese, i.e. the equivalent of spelling T-I-G-E-R in VERY BIG letters on your arm.

This reminded me of the time that my mother and father and I travelled to Hong Kong and my mother was transfixed by the beauty of the neon signs. “Aren’t they lovely?” she beamed. While I appreciated their colours, I was unable to appreciate them as aesthetic works of art only, since I kept getting distracted by their meanings, with decidedly unromantic words like “barber shop” (which generally means brothel) “sale”, and “fried chicken” jumping out at me. At that point, having a finely tuned sense of aesthetics, (thanks to my mother) I wished I didn’t know how to read them and could have appreciated them for their beauty alone.

By far the most stupid tattoo I’ve seen in a while (quite literally!) was a few months back, when I spied a girl in a bar with the phrase 愚蠢的女孩 tattooed down her back. I did a double take, and checked my dictionary as soon as I got home. Sure enough, it was indeed “stupid girl”. Why? I mean, really…why?? Perhaps she liked the song “Stupid Girl” by Garbage and thought it would be a neat “inside joke”. However an inside joke is by definition one that few get, and her chances of going under the radar with this ridiculous tattoo were slim to none in Vancouver, the most Chinese city in North America…

It’s probably good to have cases of Westerners misusing Chinese as it evens things up, given the propensity of Chinese/Japanese speakers to misuse English, but I would like to point out that the latter have an advantage over the former, as they generally display their English language gaffers on T-shirts!!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Chinese Jokes!

Question: What’s a great way to start a conversation?

Well, if you have the VPC Book, you know we’re big on compliments – telling someone their hair/bag/dress looks good, that their baby is cute, etc. But there’s another way we like to break the ice – and it works on strangers, passing acquaintances, friends and co-workers!

Tell a funny joke! Or a silly one, or a stupid one…or combination thereof – really, it’s all the same. A riddle is a great conversation starter or ice breaker! That’s why the VPC Study Guide includes 45 jokes – one at the end of every chapter, for you to learn and regale your friends with. Here are a few examples from the VPC Study Guide (where there are 45 jokes in all, one at the end of every chapter!) Get your copy at!

Note: Unfortunately the Pinyin font is not on the Blogger list of fonts, so instead I’ve had to put the tone beside the pronunciation. In the VPC Study Guide and on the VPC website, we use the Pinyin font (which you can also download, along with the Chinese character fonts we used in the VPC Book, in the “Fonts” Section of the “Supplementary Materials”.


Riddle: (from: VPC Book/Study Guide Chapter 3)

Q: 世界上哪一種動物有最大的胸部?

Shi4jie4shang4 na3 yi4 zhong3 dong4wu4
you3 zui4 da4 de xiong1bu4?

Which of the world’s animal has the
largest breasts?

A: 斑馬 , 因為牠穿Z bra.

Ban1ma3, yin1wei4 ta1 chuan1 “Z bra”.

Zebra, because it wears a “Z” bra.


Riddle: (from: VPC Study Guide Chapter 9)

Q: 先有男生還是先有女生?

Xian1 you3 nan2sheng1 hai2shi4 xian1
You3 nv3sheng1?

Who came first, man or woman?

A: 男生, 因為他們都叫先生.

Nan2sheng1, yin1wei4 ta1men dou1
Jiao4 xian1sheng1.

Men – because they’re all called

Reason: xi1nsh9ng “Mister” literally
translates as xian1 先 (first)
sheng1生 (born)


Riddle: (from: VPC Study Guide Chapter 12)

Q: 什麼老鼠用兩隻腳走路?

Shen2me lao3shu3 yong4 liang3 zhi1
jiao3 zou3lu4?

Which mouse uses two legs to walk?

A: 米老鼠


Mickey Mouse

Q: 那麼, 什麼鴨子用兩隻腳走路?

Na4me, shen2me ya1zi yong4 liang3
zhi1 jiao3 zou3lu4?

So then, which duck uses two legs to

A: T2ngl3oy1 唐老鴨


Donald Duck

...笨, 全世界的鴨子都用兩隻腳走路!

…Ben4, quan2 shi4jie4 de ya1zi dou1
yong4 liang3 zhi1 jiao3 zou3lu4!

…Silly, all ducks use two legs to walk!


Taiwan is a multi-lingual society – most people are bilingual, speaking both Mandarin and Taiwanese (or Hakka, another common dialect in Taiwan), and many people of course speak English as well, making them trilingual! This may be the reason that many of their riddles and jokes are an inter-language play on words, often using two and sometimes three languages to make the joke!

Jokes are a fantastic way to better understand the culture of where you are! They’re great material for a language exchange – usually full of double entendres, slang, puns and cultural references. There’s a good chance you might not “get” a joke, even if you understand it word by word, literally. In that case, show your native speaking friend/language exchange partner. This will provide a good 20 minutes of conversation material as he or she explains it (hopefully in Chinese, but for harder to understand jokes a combination of English and Chinese might be necessary). While there are a few jokes you’ll never really get, for the most part you’ll find them amusing and clever, if not downright funny! And at the end of the day, you’re left with a great way to start a conversation, because when was the last time you said “No” when someone asked, “Hey! Do you want to hear a funny/silly/stupid joke?” Everyone likes jokes!

Monday, April 27, 2009

How (and Why!) to Write Chinese by Typing it!

For all intents and purposes, these days “writing” in Chinese is really just typing it – and if you can spell the pinyin for each character, then you can become literate at the same pace as you become verbally fluent in Mandarin.

Windows (98, XP, Vista) generally includes Language Interface Pack (LIU) in its operating system. If you only have the Basic Vista package, it’s not included (which I just found out) but you can download it free of charge from the Microsoft website (which I also found out, in short order). If you’re having trouble getting characters to work after you've loaded the LIU Pack, here's how you do it:

To install Traditional Characters (with Pinyin input):

Go to StartControl PanelRegional Languages OptionsKeyboards and LanguagesChange KeyboardChinese (Taiwan) double click → Chinese Traditional New Phonetic

Now click on Chinese Traditional New Phonetic (in your list of languages. Look at the sidebar, which says add, remove and properties) → propertieskeyboardHanYu Pinyin

To add Simplified Characters as well:
Click add scroll down and pick Chinese (PRC)

Done? Yay! Now you’re ready to type in Chinese!!

This predictive text program makes typing so easy! For example, if I want to type “I am a student”, I will type “wo” (I) and 我 appears. Then I type “shi” (am) and then 是, the correct character, appears. Given that there are so many different characters with the pronunciation “shi”, how does the program know that 是 is the right one? Because this 是is the most logical choice for this sentence – and in this case, correct. The rest of the sentence continues in the same way…next I type “yi” and get 一 (which means one, and combined with the classifier “ge” 個, the next two characters I type, together mean “a/an”. Finally, I type “xue” and 學 pops up, which I follow with “sheng” 生. The 學 appeared because, again, it is one of the most common characters, and the most logical in this sentence. 生 follows, because there’s only one compound word with the combination “xuesheng” (student) – and the program knows this. It’s smart!

What if I don’t want the default characters the program provides? Let’s say I type “yao”. The most common one, 要, comes up, however I don’t want the “yao” that means “want”, but the “yao” that means “medicine”. Since 要 has a dotted line under it, I can change it. (It only “sets” when you press enter, and the dotted line disappears.) To change characters, I use my down and side arrow keys at the bottom right hand of the key board. To get the correct character, 藥, I press the down arrow (↓) and see 9 options, each with a handy key in number on the left. I scroll down to number 3 because that’s the “yao” I want. To see all the characters, I can press the down arrow (↓) and then press the right arrow key (→) and presto, 81 different characters for the sound “yao” appear. (The one drawback to this program is that the characters are so darned small. You have two options – you can squint like me, or you can invest in a magnifying glass like my student, who assures me it works like a charm!)

We have taken great pains to ensure that the pinyin equivalent is either under or beside every character in the Very Practical Chinese Book and its accompanying Study Guide – ensuring that you are able to write anything you find in either one. As you get more and more comfortable with the dialogues, absorbing the syntax and vocabulary, you will be able to write your own thoughts in emails, MS Messenger and text messages. You will be literate as long as you are supported by the current level of technology we have. And let’s face it: If the day comes when we no longer have cell phones and computers, chances are the inability to write in Chinese will sadly be the least of your worries.

So, presuming you’ll always have access to the equipment that allows you to type in Chinese, is there any reason that you would still want to learn to write characters old school, stroke by stroke? Well, while it’s a very artistic language to “draw”, the beauty and spontaneity of the “brush strokes” is lost on all but the most diehard purists by the 10th or 20th time you write a character, bearing in mind that it might take 100 times for you to actually commit just one character to memory. Ditto for being able to keep a Chinese diary of your secrets, strictly for the purpose (well, this was my pathetic purpose) of leaving it around the house, knowing no one else in your family would be able to read what it says. (As it so happens, no one was that interested in my secret thoughts, so the effort to payoff ratio was dismal.) Perhaps you’re worried that you might be on the street and run up against a situation where you have to give someone an address…well, your cell phone has all the same characters as your computer, the same Pinyin (or BPMF, if you prefer) input. Finally, let me assure you that unless you are very different from most of us, the day you stop copying characters out 10- 20 times each is the day you start to forget them. A year from the day you stopped, you might remember how to handwrite 1/20th of what you once knew if you’ve got a VERY good memory. It’s depressing but true, and I speak from personal experience.

The bottom line is that learning to handwrite characters stroke by stroke is not a viable option for time sensitive non-native adult learners of Chinese. We don’t have all the time in the world, unlike those industrious grade school children all across China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan who tack on a good hour or two to their homework schedule every night for 15 years, just to become literate.

So why not give it a try? You’ll be amazed at how fast you’re able to express your ideas in writing. Be sure to make use of all the FREE study materials at to become impressively fluent and literate in Mandarin in no time flat!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Introduction to VPC

I got the idea for Very Practical Chinese while making up ad-lib conversations to have in stores or restaurants the first year I lived in Taiwan. I’d often go to big department stores to practice my fledgling abilities. First would look up vocabulary words (colors, sizes, clothing styles) and then do my best to piece together conversations (“If she says this, then I’ll say that, then she’ll say this and I’ll say that!”). Of the books that existed for learning Chinese, very few had a primary focus on conversation, and I found the little conversation provided to not be very useful. I felt and still feel very strongly that if you are in a Chinese speaking environment, you should adopt a “the world is my oyster” approach to studying, using every outing, shopping trip, restaurant visit and chance encounter as a way to improve your Chinese.

While the vast majority of Mandarin speakers (in my experience over a decade in Taiwan) are unfailingly polite and helpful, eager to help you learn, it was my experience also that a student could help conversations along – after all, there are only so many ways a conversation in a market buying fruit, in a hair salon, or in a clothing store are likely to go, realistically. I felt that if, before going out, you learn (or even better, commit to memory) conversations you’ll be likely to have, your chances of having useful encounters with native speakers on a daily basis that quantifiably improve your Chinese would be much likelier to occur.

Many of the unique VPC dialogues focus on starting conversations using compliments: “Your hair looks great!” (Chapter 14), “You look great today!” (Chapter 29), “I love your bag!” (Chapter 33), and “What a pretty baby you have!” (Chapter 43) are just a few of the chapters designed to start a conversation by saying something nice. If you commit enough of these dialogues to memory (by listening and repeating the audio with/without the book) and practice them until you can say them in your sleep, you’ll find that sooner or later, real, spontaneous conversation starts to develop. What first begins as a conscious effort to make piecemeal conversations, grabbing a sentence from one dialogue and pairing it with another, soon evolves into a very natural conversation where your 45 conversations (and 3000 plus words and phrases from the VPC Book and Study Guide) give you a strong, supported base, from which you can jump to specific topics.

If you’d like to learn more about the VPC Books, check out our website at: Here you’ll find sample chapters of the first three chapters of the VPC Book and Study Guide, including the audio tracks, as well as the table of contents and a selection of other material from the books. In addition, our website has a good selection of high quality, supplementary materials, such as flashcards and writing templates. Designed to be used in conjunction with the VPC Book and Study Guide, they are FREE for you to download and use, to speed your fluency in Mandarin!

We welcome you to follow this blog for excerpts from the VPC Book and Study Guide, as well as postings on a wide variety of topics, including how to achieve success with tone, tips for a language exchange, study tips and much more!