Thursday, October 8, 2009

Learn Chinese - Planet Names

I was recently given a copy of the Chinese-English Visual Bilingual Dictionary.

Flipping through it, I came to a page on the planets. Obviously, learning the names of the planets would not be high on anyone's list of useful Chinese to learn, but as happens when you're learning Chinese, I noticed several associations with things I've already learnt.

First, here are the names of the planets (and as a special bonus, the sun and the moon as well):

EnglishPinyinChinese Characters

So where to start with the associations?

First, I long ago learnt that Xīng 星 means star. I used to live in a city which had a tourist attraction called the Seven Star Crags (Qixing Yan Gongyuan 七星岩). Most of the planets are named with the pattern <something>xīng - so they are literally named something star.

Mercury seems to be called the water star (Shuǐ 水 meaning water). Why that's the case is anyone's guess! As far as I know there's no water on Mercury. (Edit: Actually it turns out that there is water on Mercury, but it was only discovered last year).

Venus is called the gold star (Jīn 金meaning gold). The picture of Venus in the book does look to be a goldish colour, as do some of the images you find in a Google Image Search.

Mars is the fire star (Huǒ 火 meaning fire). I guess that's no surprise - after all it's known as the red planet in English and red is the colour of fire.

I'm not familiar with Mù 木for Jupiter, but it seems to mean stick. Just why Jupiter would be the stick star is a bit of a puzzle.

Saturn is the earth (or land) star - Tǔ being the start of earth / land Tǔdì 土地 - or perhaps the potato tǔdòu 土豆star :)

Uranis, Neptune and Pluto share the wáng 王 character as the second character, which seems to translate as king.

Uranis is the sky king star (Tiān 天being sky) and Neptune is the sea king star (Hǎi 海meaning sea). I'm not so sure about Pluto - perhaps the dark king star? Anyone out there have a translation for Míng 冥?

Neptune is an interesting one for me. Neptune was the king of the sea in Olympian mythology, so perhaps Hǎiwángxīng (sea king star) is just a direct translation of the English name for the planet.

Also, in my post on the points of the compass, I used the city of Hǎinán海南 to illustrate the use of Nán (south) in place names. Now we can see that Hǎi means sea, so Hǎinán is literally Sea South, appropriate for a city on the sea in the south of China.

For the earth and the moon, qiú 球 means sphere. Dì 地 means land, so the earth is land sphere.

For the moon, the familiar Yuè 月 character is used. This will be familiar to most Chinese learners as it's one of the first characters you learn to recognise, meaning month and appearing in dates etc.

As I said, lots of associations here. I don't think learning the planet names is particularly useful in every day Chinese, but those connections help strengthen what you already do know.

As an aside, the Chinese-English Visual Bilingual Dictionary is great. It won't help you learn grammar or even phrases, but it will expand your vocabulary immensely.

Keywords: Shuixing, Jinxing, Diqiu, Huoxing, Muxing, Tuxing, Tianwangxing, Haiwangxing, Mingwangxing, Taiyang, Yueqiu, Xing, Yue, Shui, Jin, Huo, Mu, Tu, Tian, Hai, Wang.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Learn Chinese - Direction / Points Of The Compass

This is just a quick 'lesson' outlining directions, ie the points of the compass: North, South East and West (and middle).

Although not particularly useful for navigating around town (I've never jumped into a taxi and said go north), knowing the terms can be very useful. This is especially true of the Chinese characters - learning to read North, South, East and West can help you recognise place names when you're travelling.

There's been more than one occasion when I've been confronted with a wall of destination names in Chinese and have sighed with relief when I've recognised the city I wanted, thanks to the presence of one of these characters.

Here they are, along with some example place names that use these characters:

English Pinyin Chinese Character Examples
North Běi Běijīng 北京, Dōngběi 东北
South Nán Nan2hai 南海, Hainan2 海南, Nánjīng 南京
East Dōng Guǎngdōng 广东, Dōngběi 东北
West 西 Guǎngxī 广西, Xīzàng 西藏
Middle Zhōng Zhōngguó 中国

As well as being found in city / province names, you'll also encounter these terms around town:

At the first school I taught at in China, we used to catch taxis (chūzūqìchē 出租汽车) to the west gate (xīmén 西门) of the school. Behind the school was the north ridge mountain (Běiling shān). In Beijing, you'll find Běihěi Park (north sea park 北海公园).

And so on and so forth, all over China.

You'll also see Zhong Shan all over China, although strictly speaking, Zhong Shan is a Chinese hero rather than Middle Mountain.

Anyway, learning the Chinese for the points of the compass will be useful for anyone living in or visiting China.

Key Phrases: Bei, Nan, Dong, Xi, Beijing, Dongbei, Nanhai, Hainan, Nanjing, Guangdong, Dongbei, Guangxi, Xizang, Zhong, Zhongguo, Chuzuqiche, Ximen, Beiling shan, Beihei park

Friday, August 14, 2009

Learn Chinese - A Cold And A Red Pen

Here is an amusing story (well sort of) that happened a few days ago.

I currently have a cold, or as you'd say in Chinese: Wǒ gǎnmào le (我感冒了). It's a very heavy cold and as a result, I have a red nose.

Seeing this, my wife said to my daughter "Bàba yǒu hóng bízi" (爸爸有红鼻子) or "Daddy has a red nose". I replied "What, I have a red pen?" (in English).

Of course, I know the difference between (鼻) and (笔), but this caused my daughter great merriment. Not particularly great humour, but it's a nice feeling to be able to make even a bad joke in Chinese.

For a little more value, here are some other illness related phrases, which I've found useful on occasion, when living in China. You'll find most of these in your Chinese phrasebook, but it's worth learning the basics for those occasions when you don't have the phrasebook at hand (or are too sick to read it!):

English Pinyin Chinese Characters
Where's the hospital? yīyuàn zàinǎ 医院在那
I need a doctor Wǒ děi jiàn dàifu 我得见大夫
I have a cold Wǒ gǎn mào le 我感冒了
I have been vomiting Wǒ yīzhí zài tù 我一直在土
I have diarrhoea Wǒ xièdùzi 我写肚子
I have a headache Wǒ tóuténg le 我头疼了

I've used all of these at times.

But really, if you're sick, the best thing to do is find someone who can speak Chinese well to translate for you. It's not the best time to be practicing your Chinese!

Any conversation with a doctor or hospital staff is likely to go far beyond what's written here (or for that matter in most phrasebooks).

Key phrases: you hong bizi, yiyuan zaina, wo dei jian daifu, wo ganmao le, wo yizhi zai tu, wo xieduzi, wo touteng le

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Learn Chinese: I Can't Speak Chinese!

One of the first things I learnt to say, when I lived in China, was "I can't speak Chinese". In fact, I learnt to say it so well, that the person I was speaking to wouldn't believe me!


Why is it important to learn how to say that you can't speak Chinese?

If you're a beginner and want to try out your Chinese skills, people will often assume you can speak and will start rattling off Chinese at you. Unless your Chinese is pretty good, the chances are that most of what they say will go right over your head. You need to be able let them know that you can't really speak Chinese fluently.


First, here is how to say "I don't understand" (literal meaning in brackets):

Wǒ tīng bù dǒng
(I hear not understand)

Next, here is how to say that you can't speak Chinese. Use this if you really can't speak at all:

Wǒ bú huì shuō pǔtōnghuà
(I not can speak Chinese)

If you know a little bit of Chinese, you might say:

Wǒ huì shuō pǔtōnghuà yìdiǎn
(I can speak Chinese a little)

An alternative, which I sometimes use, is:

Wǒ pǔtōnghuà shuō de bù hǎo
(I/My Chinese speak no good)

My favourite is actually:

Wǒ huì shuō yìdiǎn, kěshi wǒ tīng bù hǎo
(I can speak a little, but I hear no good)

I use this to explain that while I can talk to them a little bit, I can't actually understand them when they start talking back to me at a rate of knots. If you can understand a little bit and they are just talking too fast, try adding:

Nǐ shuō tài kuài le. Màn màn shuō
(You talk too quickly. Slowly slowly speak).

I'm sure that's not the politest way of saying it, but foreigners can get away with it - I've never had a problem using it!

Lesson Notes

yìdiǎn is often prounounced as yìdiǎr, especially in Beijing.

I've used pǔtōnghuà for Chinese, which in fact means "common language". This is the most commonly used term for Chinese in mainland China. You can swap this for hànyǔ, which means "Chinese language", especially if you are dealing with people that aren't from the mainland.

You shouldn't use zhōngwén as this is the Chinese written language. That's a trap I used to fall into.

Interestingly, the actual translation for Mandarin appears to be either Guānhuà (speech of officials) or Běifānghuà (northern dialect), but I've never heard these used. Stick to pǔtōnghuà or hànyǔ.

You don't have to actually say Chinese. All of the above work even if you drop the pǔtōnghuà from the phrases. The average Chinese person probably wouldn't say it. For example, they'd probably say:

Wǒ huì shuō yìdiǎn
(I can talk a little)

rather than the full:

Wǒ huì shuō pǔtōnghuà yìdiǎn

Also, I use shuō for talk, which in my experience is the most commonly used term. However, at times jiǎng is used instead of shuō.

Keywords: shuo, jiang, wo hui shuo, wo bu hui shuo, putonghua, hanyu, zhongwen, guanhua, beifanghua, yidian, ting bu dong, shuo de bu hao, ting bu hao, shou tai kuaile, man man shuo

Final Thoughts

There are quite a few variables around this, but learning the different ways to say that you can't speak, or can only speak a little, is one of the things that it's worth learning early on.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Learn Chinese - Intelligent Or Clever

Here's another instalment in my Learn Chinese series and this time we're looking at the Chinese for intelligent (or clever):

Intelligent: Cōngmíng (聪明)

This was one of the things I tried to learn way back in 2002 when I've first lived in China (in Zhaoqing). I wasn't studying very hard back then and I couldn't keep it in my head, but it's something that I've re-learnt recently.

Why did I try to learn 'intelligent'? Was it to compliment my students on their excellent grasp of English? No, it was to rebuke local teenagers who called out guailo!

Guailo means foreigner. While not particularly offensive in it's own right - many people seemed to exclaim it in surprise on seeing a foreigner - I occasionally encountered some teenagers who called Guailo in a mocking voice. I longed to reply sarcastically:

Doì. Nǐ hěn Cōngmíng!

Which means:

Correct. You are very intelligent!

That would have shocked them (mainly that I could speak Chinese). Sadly, I couldn't remember the cong ming part, so I never got to use it.

Lesson Notes

It's worth pointing out that ming means bright and is used in other contexts (including in given names).

Keywords: congming, guailo, doi, hen, ming

That's all for this Chinese 'lesson'.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Learn Chinese: Fingers Of The Hand

Well here's the first instalment on Learn Chinese With Me and we're starting with the Chinese for the fingers of the hand.

Why are we starting with this? Well, I've been carrying around a piece of paper with the Chinese for the different fingers on it for more than a year. Now I can finally retire the piece of paper, because it will be recorded right here.


First, the general term for finger is shǒuzhǐ (手指). Now here is the Mandarin for the different fingers:

English Pinyin Chinese Characters
Thumb dàmǔzhǐ 大拇指
Index Finger shízhǐ 食指
Middle Finger zhōngzhǐ 中指
Ring Finger wúmíngzhǐ 无名指
Little Finger xiàozhǐ 小指

Lesson Notes:

As is common in Chinese, the zhǐ from shǒuzhǐ is carried through with each of the fingers, but the leading character changes to indicate which finger we're talking about.

Of the actual fingers, there are some characters which may be familiar to Chinese learners:

  • Thumb: dà 大 means big. Makes sense: the thumb is the big finger.
  • Little finger: xiào 小 means small, so literally this means small finger.
  • Middle finger: zhōng 中 means middle. zhōng can also be seen in Zhōngguǒ 中国 which is China or literally Middle Kingdom.

Keywords: shouzhi, damuzhi, shizhi, zhongzhi, wumingzhi, xiaozhi, da, xiao, zhong, zhongguo

Well that's all for the first 'lesson' (used very loosely!).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Introduction To Learn Chinese With Me

Welcome to Learn Chinese With Me.

I've been living and working in China on and off since 2002 (though I'm back in Australia now). At various points I've thrown myself into learning Chinese (Mandarin), but the efforts have never lasted.

The end result is that I have a basic level of Chinese, but with significant gaps. I'm looking to take my Chinese to the next level and have decided that for me to really learn Chinese properly, I need to make sure that I keep it up.

How can I do that? Enter this blog! If I have to post the Chinese I've learnt, that's an incentive to keep learning. It makes me a little more accountable, even if ultimately it's only accountable to myself! Then again, who knows, this blog may end up with readers, then I'll be accountable to them.

So the purpose of this blog is just to document what I learn (in the Chinese language), as I learn it. It MAY be useful to other people to follow along, but it's NOT going to be a complete, organized, program to help you learn Chinese. It's really just for me to record what I learn (from a variety of sources).

I have another China related blog over at my jobs in China site and I thought about adding these posts over there, but in the end I thought having a separate site just for these posts is a better solution - a single place where everything I've learnt is contained.

So, welcome to Learn Chinese With Me - I hope it may be of use to you (and I hope I finally take my Chinese to the next level).