Monday, January 31, 2011

Mandarin for Mummies

Are you an ancient pharaoh, embalmed thousands of years ago, who has been finding tomb life a bit lonely?  Has your humble pyramid (jīnzìtǎ 金字塔) recently been excavated by Chinese archaeologists who don't speak your dialect of Ancient Egyptian?  Then it's time to put down that mummified cat and pick up some Mandarin!

Before you say anything else to your new friends, you're going to want to apologize for the dust (huīchén 灰尘).  The years you've spent sealed up in that underground chamber have taken a ghastly toll on your dwelling.  Would it have killed you to have picked up a broom now and again?  Ah, wait - you're already dead (sǐ 死).  How unfortunate.

If your guests seem a bit put off by your appearance, keep in mind that aging isn't pretty.  In addition to all those wrinkles and petrified parts your sporting, don't forget that you've also lost a few organs (qìguān 器官) since your days as king, and unless these particular archeologists are also lawyers, they're probably not used to being around people who are hollow inside.  Once the shock of your hideousness has worn off, welcome them to Egypt (Āijí 埃及) and offer them something to eat (chī 吃).  Your offer will, of course, be a formality at most, as there won't be much, if anything, edible in your pyramid (scarabs anyone?), but it's the thought that counts.  Furthermore, after staring at you for a few minutes your guests will have likely lost their appetites anyway. 

If you find it difficult to strike up a conversation, start by sharing a little about yourself.  Tell them how old you are (I'm 2000 years old - liǎng qiān suì 我两千岁) and ask if they can share a little of what you've missed since you've been incapacitated.  You don't want to be the only mummy out there who is oblivious to the fact that "Benifer" is no more. How embarrassing!

Finally, be sure to invite your new friends to come back and visit again.  Promise them you'll find something more suitable to wear next time too (nemes and shendyts are so last millenium...).  If you're lucky, they'll come back soon with a whole army of museum curators in tow.  Now back to the sarcophagus with you!

Want to know what this blog is all about?  Check out How to Use This Blog.

Did you enjoy this post?  Then you might also enjoy Chinese for Errand Boys.
Enjoy learning through songs? Then you might like Learning Through Song: Ni Wa Wa 

1. huīchén ("hway-chen") 灰尘 dust
Dust (huīchén) allergies can kill if you live in a tomb.

2. Āijí ("eye-jee") 埃及 Egypt
Egypt (Āijí) isn't the only country that boasts a collection of mummies, but the ones in China don't have pyramids to brag about. 

3. sǐ ("sih") 死 dead
When a person has been dead (sǐ) as long as you, there's sure to be an odor. 

4. chī ("chih") 吃 to eat  
I prefer not to eat (chī) anything that has been entombed, but thank you for the offer.

5. qìguān ("chee-gwahn") 器官 organs
I seem to have misplaced my organs (qìguān). Have you excavated them?

6. jīnzìtǎ ("jeen-zee-tah") 金字塔 pyramid
This pyramid (jīnzìtǎ) represents the blood and sweat of a whole mess of slaves that I smacked around for a couple decades.

7. liǎng qiān ("lee-ong cheeyen") 两千 two thousand  
Two thousand (liǎng qiān) years ago, writing the year took less time. 

8. suì ("sway") 岁 age 
When you're my age (suì) , petrifying is an improvement.   

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For more help pronouncing Mandarin words, click here.

Image by StrangeInterlude via Flickr is licensed under CC.

Friday, January 28, 2011

10 Simple Ways to Make Language Learning a Lifestyle

When we think of learning a second language, the images that come to mind are often of books, teachers, and classrooms.  While there is something to be said for language classes and outright studying, sometimes more passive language learning can yield longer lasting results.

Often times students will spend hours and hours studying vocabulary and grammar for their language classes only to forget the majority of what they have learned once the class is over.  It seems that the brain tends to remember only what it has to, purging itself periodically of information it no longer deems essential.  Detailed knowledge of a foreign language, as well as other types of information learned in an academic setting, often settles only into short term memory.

So, what can be done to avoid forgetting what you have learned of your target language, and how can you learn a language without spending hours doing repetitive memorization tasks?  The key is to make language learning a part of your life.  What follows are some simple suggestions for living a lifestyle that is conducive to language learning. 

1.  Label items in your home.  

More than likely you spend at least half of your day in your home.  This makes your home a valuable potential learning space and it's easy to make use of it.  Write out labels in your target language for various items in your home and place those labels on the respective items.  Don't worry about labeling everything at once - you don't want to get burned out.  Do a label here and there when you feel like it.  You can even label things like walls, doors, and the ceiling.  Seeing the labels as you go about your daily business will help you to quickly associate the appropriate words in your target language with the items you've labeled.  When you've decided that a word has been permanently committed to memory, take the label down and make a label for another item in your home.

2.  Watch television in your target language.

Media is a powerful thing.  We've all seen the studies that show how certain types of television programs affect children.  It has everything to do with the fact that television reaches us in ways that are unique and long lasting.  Use it to your advantage by spending some time watching programs in the language you're trying to learn.  Watching television in another language is an excellent way to learn words via inference because both visual as well as audio clues alert you to the meanings of new words you encounter.  It doesn't matter what stage of your language learning you're in because watching TV in your target language can have benefits for both new second language learners as well as advanced learners.  New learners can get a feeling for the cadences, rhythms and phonetics of a language, while learners who are already advanced in their target language can acquire new vocabulary by using the aforementioned visual and audio clues to figure out the meanings of various words.

3.  Make friends with people who speak the language.

Making friends with people who speak your target language can be one of the most valuable ways to learn a language.  Having the opportunity to use your language skills as you develop them is a surefire way to turn short term language memories into long term language memories.  Speak to these friends in your target language as often as you can.  The vast majority of the time, people love to help others who are learning their native language.  People love to be teachers because it makes them feel good about themselves.  Practicing your language skills with a native speaker is a win win situation for that reason.

4.  Keep a new word journal. 

Keeping a new word journal is valuable because it not only gives you the opportunity to engage in kinesthetic and visual learning, but also gives you an easy way to track what you've learned so far and review periodically.  Maintaining your journal can be as simple as writing down the new words you learn each day.  

5.  Don't try to learn too much at once.

A couple words a day solidified in your memory is better than temporarily memorizing 100 words that you'll forget in a week.  You'll be surprised to find how quickly you can build your vocabulary if you simply make an effort to use a few new words over and over each day until you cannot possibly forget them.

6.  Use repetition.

As you learn new vocabulary words, be sure to also recycle new words from weeks previous.  Choose a few brand new words to focus on each day, but add one or two recently learned words to your list as well.  While you may feel that you've learned those words sufficiently, emphasizing them a second time will only remind your brain that these words are not to be forgotten.  Neglecting to review from time to time will result in a vocabulary that grows at a slower rate because as new words are learned, old words are forgotten. 

7.  Visit language learning web sites.

Make the most of the internet by frequenting web sites devoted to learning your target language.  The key to fluency in any language is constant use of and exposure to that language.  Language websites, as opposed to books and television programs, tend to be more interactive, giving you better choice as to what you want to focus on.  And don't forget to make use of sites like Google Translate, which allow you to translate not only words, but entire paragraphs of text as well as websites and video captions.

8.  Don't overemphasize grammar in the early learning stages.

The complex grammar of any language can be overwhelming.  While learning grammar directly has its merits, if you treat language learning as a lifestyle, you'll find that simply exposing yourself to your target language on a regular basis will allow you to glean knowledge of its basic grammar.  While in the early stages of learning a language, focus most of your attention on learning vocabulary.  While you may not be able to speak a language perfectly in the short term, you can both get your point across as well as understand your target language with vocabulary alone.  When you have built your vocabulary to a decent size, you will find that you already know the framework of your target language's grammar.  You can then begin to build on that framework with focused grammar learning.

9.   Make certain words a part of your daily routine.

Find creative ways to use your target language in the context of your everyday life.  When we first brought our dog home, we found that she had already learned a few simple commands like "sit", and "stay".  One day I thought it would be fun to teach her "sit" in Chinese - "zuò xià" (坐下).  She learned the command quickly, and thanks to using it on a regular basis that phrase in particular has become a permanent part of my Chinese vocabulary.

10.  Listen to music in your target language.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to learn a language from a wide variety of sources.  Music is just another way to trigger a different part of your brain and use that part of your brain for language learning.  Not only is it fun to experience music from other cultures, but it also becomes exciting when you begin to understand what you hear.  Music is an excellent way to practice hearing and understanding, and it can be a fun way to challenge your ability to translate quickly.

While there are certainly many more ways to incorporate language learning into your daily life, the above suggestions are a great place to start.  Feel free to share your own suggestions for fostering a language learning lifestyle by leaving a comment.

1.  zuò xià ("zwoh see ah") 坐下  sit; sit down
"Sit down (zuò xià)!" the mother told her son as he jumped up and down on the couch wearing his cap and gown.

For more help pronouncing Mandarin words, click here.  

Image by Jepoirrier via Flickr.  Licensed under Creative Commons - some rights reserved. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Changing the Subject With Chinese Words: A Simple Guide

Have you ever been conversing with a friend (or insurance salesman) when you find yourself in the middle of an uncomfortable discussion about money, politics, or religion? Yikes.  There's nothing worse than not finding the right words to say - especially when those words could get you out of answering a question like, "So, who did you vote for in the last election?"  (uncomfortable pause...) So anyways,  here are a few generally uncontroversial topics of conversation to consider when you need a quick subject change:

1.  Puppies and Kittens

Who doesn't ooh and ah when they see a sweet little puppy (xiǎogǒu 小狗) or kitten (xiǎomāo 小猫)?  Even a hardened criminal would find them irresistible (though hopefully not in the culinary sense...).  Rumor has it that Napoleon's entire army once stopped dead in their tracks when they were overcome with emotion at the sight of a three week old pug.  That is, of course, a rumor that I started.

2.  Taxes

No one likes taxes (shuì 税) and if you meet someone who does, he's probably off his rocker.  Smile, back away slowly, and avoid direct eye contact. 

3.  Things That Are Smelly

This topic in particular is an excellent transition from politics.  Try something like this, "You want to know which candidate I voted for?  Speaking of things that stink, did you smell (wén 闻) that breeze coming off the bay yesterday?" 

4.  Firefighters 

I can only assume that there are few people in the world who don't appreciate a good firefighter (xiāofáng duìyuán  消防 队员).  Who doesn't like the guy (or girl) who comes to the rescue when your crazy neighbor is trying to burn his house down for the insurance money and the flames are getting increasingly closer to your own pile of tinder?

5.  Aging

When it comes to aging (lǎohuà 老化), you can be against it but a fat lot of good that'll do ya.  Express your utter disdain for what the changes of time have done to your figure (vision, hearing, mind, etc.) and you'll most certainly be met with a hearty "Amen!"

So there you have it.  A few simple suggestions that can turn your conversations away from controversy and back to where they should be - lamenting the weather.  And don't forget that these words can really come in handy during family gatherings when Uncle Carl starts lecturing you about how you're wasting your life doing whatever it is that you do.  You could, of course, fake an illness and excuse yourself, but it would likely be much easier to just tell him you're thinking of becoming a firefighter (xiāofáng duìyuán)...

1.  xiǎogǒu ("she aw go") 小狗 puppy
The villainous puppy (xiǎogǒu) escaped once again.

2.  xiǎomāo ("she aw mahw") 小猫 kitten
The kitten (xiǎomāo) was given her kitty chow and promptly returned the favor.

3.  shuì ("schway") 税 taxes, tax 
The taxes (shuì) on some new cars could buy a small farm.

4.  wén ("when") 闻 to smell (i.e. experience a scent) 
"I smell (wén) something fishy" thought Red Riding Hood as she approached Grandma's cottage.

5.  xiāofáng duìyuán  ("sh aah oo fong dway yoo en") 消防 队员 fireman 
The fireman (xiāofáng duìyuán) was forced to break down the door, but he saved the kitten.

6.  lǎohuà ("laoh hwah") 老化 aging
Aging (lǎohuà) and taxes are both unavoidable.

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For more help pronouncing Mandarin words, click here.  

Photo by Cheatsheet (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons - licensed under CC

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Backseat Driving for Students of Chinese

New vocabulary words are in bold.  Old vocabulary words are linked to the lesson wherein they were introduced.

It's happened to all of us.  You're driving down the interstate at full speed with your friend at the wheel when you suddenly realize, "Oh gosh, he () drives like an old blind woman!"  After the initial panic wears off, you come to your senses and decide that there's only one thing to do - pray and make use of your "back seat driver's license."  You thank God that the front seat of the car was taken, but you feel twinges of sympathy for the mutual acquaintance who yelled "Shotgun!" and now finds himself hyperventilating as he () searches his seat like a crazy person, hoping to find a couple extra seat belts hiding somewhere.

Meanwhile, your friend has accelerated.  As you zoom by other cars at warp speed, your friend nearly side swipes a bus full of orphans.  "Um, going a bit fast (kuài 快), aren't we?" you suggest uncomfortably as you adjust your glasses in a way that implies that maybe you just can't see how very well he's driving. Your friend slaps you on the back with the finesse of a warthog and laughs at your "joke" while cutting off a minivan.

"I () really think you're going too (tài) fast (kuài)." you say, as you feel the car begin to levitate.  You wedge your toes under the seat in front of you because that's what people do when their friends drive like maniacs.  Your friend smiles again and assures you that he's been driving for years and has only had five speeding tickets to date.  You're not impressed.  In fact, you're downright scared (hàipà).  Just as you begin to wonder if his car has a flux capacitor, your friend exits the freeway and you breathe a sigh of relief as you come to a stop at half a stop sign covered in graffiti.  A pigeon locks eyes with you from atop the sign and laughs.  You look to your left (zuǒ) and notice a less than upscale, but not altogether frightening downtown shopping area.  There are actually a great deal of pigeons loitering there, enough perhaps to feed all of the laid off Detroit auto workers, but the shops in general look friendly and clean aside from all the decorative contributions from the previously mentioned birds.  Your friend turns right (yòu) and begins to drive the wrong way down a one way "street" that is, in fact, an alley.  A sparkling clean Mercedes appears and makes its way down the alley, coming towards you at a slow (màn) crawl.  Unlike your friend, its driver is clearly aware that two cars being driven straight at each other will eventually meet, and not in the "how pleasant to make your acquaintance" fashion.

The mutual acquaintance has now given up seat belts entirely and has curled himself into a ball on the floor.  He begins to sing show tunes. 

"Maybe we should turn around." you suggest.  "I () think we were supposed to go left (zuǒ) at that last intersection."  Your friend floors it.  "Why bother!" he () replies with gusto. "We're almost there!"  The Mercedes comes to a sudden stop and quickly backs into a side street to get out of the way.  You sink down into your seat hoping they won't catch a look at you as you go flying by in your four-wheeled torpedo.

Your friend adjusts his helmet.  You begin to wonder why you didn't think to wear a helmet.

Finally your friend hangs a right (yòu), nearly taking out a mail box, and the car comes to a screeching halt on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse.  "Hope you don't mind" he () says as you peel yourself off the back of your seat, "I need to make a quick stop to take care of a couple parking tickets!"

 1.  zuǒ ("dzwoah") 左 left 
On the left (zuǒ) you'll find a painting of dogs playing monopoly.
2.  yòu ("yoh") 右 right 
On the right (yòu) you'll find a painting of cats winning the lotto.
3.  kuài ("kwai") 快 fast 
He was so fast (kuài) he got there before he left.

4.  màn ("mahn") 慢 slow
He was slow (màn), like like a turtle out for a leisurely stroll.

5.  tài (like "tie") 太 too
The toast was too (tài) burned to eat, so we used it to insulate the garage.
6.  hàipà ("high-pah") 害 怕 scared
I'm so scared (hàipà) that my goose bumps are shaking. 

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For more help with Mandarin pronunciation, click here. 

Photo: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Get Sick in Chinese

Note:  I am now including some pronunciation help in the vocab list at the end of each post.  In addition, from now on all old vocab words included within each post will link to the posts wherein they were introduced.

If you've ever been sick, and who hasn't, you know how important it is to be able to tell others about it.  They say misery loves company, but misery also loves sympathy, so being able to talk about how awful you feel in another language means you can communicate your misery to more people (and have a better chance of someone bringing you some soup).

Let's say that you're feeling sick.  You have a headache and a sore throat and you're clearly too ill to go to biology class (but not too sick for chemistry since you've been sensing some "chemistry" between yourself and your lab partner...).  What will you say to your biology buddies when they call you to ask where you were (we're assuming these are real honest-to-goodness genuine human beings who actually care)?  First and foremost, you'll want to let them know that you're sick (生病 shēngbìng).  Saying "I'm sick" is as simple as saying " shēngbìng."

Now that your classmates know that you're deathly ill, they're probably going to start asking some questions.  To avoid suspicion, you're going to want to be able to tell them exactly how you feel.  An easy way to do this is to simply tell them what hurts.  If you want to say, "My throat hurts", say, "de sǎngzi téng" (我 的 嗓子 疼).  Let's break this phrase down into parts.  We know already that "" means "I".  "Wǒ de" is how we express "my". The word "de" means "of" and denotes possession.  The next word in our phrase is "sǎngzi" (嗓子), which means "throat".  The last word in the phrase is "téng" (疼), which in the context of our phrase means "hurts".

You can also take the phrase we've just learned and substitute other parts of the body in place of the word "sǎngzi" (throat).  For example, the word "tóu" (头) means "head", as in, "His head (tóu) was oddly-shaped, like a butternut squash."  If you want to say, "My head hurts.", you say, "de tóu téng."  I have included more body words that you can complain about on the master vocab list - after all, we want to be comprehensive here.

As we return to our scenario above for a moment, we'll assume that your classmates have stopped by your apartment to check on you.  After you quickly throw on your grungy pajamas and draw some dark circles under your eyes, go ahead and open the door.  While they plead for mercy from heaven for your miraculous healing (I guess you look worse than you thought), you can easily tell them what's "wrong" with you by simply saying, "this hurts" (zhège téng) and pointing to various parts of your body.  You may remember that we learned the word "this" (zhège 这个) a couple posts ago.  Now it's time to bring out that word again to use it in a new context and really burn it into our brains.  Using new words in a variety of contexts is a great way to keep those words from escaping your brain forever.  Just don't go overboard telling your friends that things hurt or they may take you straight to the hospital and you'll never get to finish that "Lost" marathon you were enjoying.

So now you've got some basic complaining skills.  Make sure to use them as often as you can - to the point where people start to think of you as sickly.  Practice makes perfect, after all!

1.  shēngbìng ("shung-bihng") 生病 生病 sick
A person as sick (shēngbìng) as I am should certainly not be required to take this mid-term.

2.   sǎngzi  ("sahng-zuh") 嗓子 throat
My throat (sǎngzi) feels like sandpaper, should I swallow some two by fours?

3.  téng ("tuhng") 疼 hurt(s), ache(s), to be painful
My food hurts (téng).  Can I go to the nurse?

4.  tóu ("tow") 头 head
His head (tóu) is full of dancing clowns.

Feel free to share your own favorite sickness words in the via comments below.

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For more help with Mandarin pronunciation, click here.

Photo courtesy of uzi978 via Flickr. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Self Loathing Broke My Think Box: How Self Esteem Affects Second Language Learning

Are you the type of person who believes he can do anything or do you think you're a less intelligent person with lower level capabilities?  Do you approach any task believing you'll finish it or do you approach tasks wondering if they're even possible?  How you view yourself can deeply affect your ability to learn a language, and those who genuinely believe they can do anything are usually the best language learners (and sometimes jump off buildings wearing a cape, but that's neither here nor there...).  When it comes to language learning, the important factor isn't how smart you are, but how much confidence you have in yourself.  Most language teachers would agree that students who are self-confident learn better because they always put forth some effort.  Students who don't believe they can learn are less likely to make a reasonable attempt to do so and sometimes even give up entirely.  Success in language learning is strongly related to a person's view of himself because those who believe they are incapable of learning don't feel the need to waste time trying.  The good news is that if you recognize that you are able to learn a second language (and I genuinely believe that all people are) your efforts to learn will most definitely be rewarded.  If you believe you can learn Chinese, or any other language, you can.

Take some time now to tell yourself how wonderful you are.  Tell yourself that you were born with a brain - not a half a brain as your overbearing mother may have told you, but a complete, crinkled, gooey, functional brain that can store and process information that is useful and relevant to you.  Remind yourself that if you just exercise your brain once in a while, it can easily reach peak optimization and that's all you need in order to reach your language learning goals.  The fact of the matter is that you've learned before and you'll do it again so why not put those learning abilities to good use by acquiring a second language?  Think about the last time you learned how to do something.  It doesn't matter whether you learned how to solve differential equations or how to diaper an elephant.  What matters is that you did, in fact, learn something.  How did you learn it? What methods did you use? Can you apply those same methods and principals to language learning? Definitely! It's time to start recognizing that you have the tools, and the abilities, to learn a foreign language.  Change the way you think so you can change the way you learn, which brings us to our vocab words for today: "can" (kěyǐ), "learn"(xué) and "Chinese"(zhōngwén) See where I'm going with this?

Our first word is "can" which is "kěyǐ" (可以).  The first half of the word "kěyǐ" is "kě" which is pronounced as if it rhymes with "duh" as in, "Duh, of course you can (kěyǐ) learn Chinese!"  The second half of the word is "yǐ", which rhymes with "see" as in, "See, I told you that you can (kěyǐ) learn Chinese!"  You'll remember from a previous post that Mandarin Chinese uses four distinct tones.  Both syllables of the word "kěyǐ" use the third tone.  Learning the tones can be as simple as saying the word aloud over and over so that your brain gets used to hearing it correctly.  You don't need to memorize the tones for each word if you make an effort to train your brain to always hear words spoken as they should be.  As mentioned before, you CAN (kěyǐ) do this, you just need to figure out what techniques work best for you and put those techniques to use.

Put simply, any average person can learn (xué 学) anything.  Learning is a matter of committing information to memory by means of the conscious or unconscious will.  If you tell your brain to learn (xué) a word in Chinese enough times, your brain is going to remember that word.  You might also learn (xué) the word by reading it over and over so many times (learn - xué - learn - xué - learn - xué - learn - xué)  that your brain starts remembering on its own.  Then, when you see or hear the word in English (LEARN), your brain automatically reminds you that you also know this word in Chinese (xué).  When you figure out which method of learning works for you, make a valiant effort to use that method in any way that you can and you'll begin to see real results with regard to your language learning.

We've all heard (and discussed in an earlier post) that some languages are more difficult to learn than others.  Chinese (zhōngwén  中文) is a language that has a reputation for being one of those more difficult languages.  But, if you've been following this blog, you probably already have at least one word of Chinese (zhōngwén) stored in your brain somewhere, so don't let yourself believe for one minute that you can't learn Chinese (zhōngwén).  You may remember that we learned the word "wǒ" which means "I" as in "I (wǒ) can (kěyǐ) learn (xué) Chinese (zhōngwén)".  How about that? We just put together a sentence!  So you see, anyone can learn Chinese with a little effort (a cute tutor wouldn't hurt either...).  All that stands between you and the ability to order far too much dim sum in Mandarin at your favorite Chinese restaurant is the ability to recognize that you can (kěyǐ)  learn (xué) Chinese (zhōngwén).  Start believing in your own abilities and building up your self-esteem, because when it comes to a person's ability to learn (xué), a little self-esteem goes a long way. Think box fixed.

1.  kěyǐ  可以   can
I can (kěyǐ) learn almost anything, if I put my mind to it.

2.  xué  学  learn, study
If I study (xué) enough, my think box might fall out, but I WILL learn (xué) Chinese.

3.  zhōngwén  中文  Chinese
Once I learn enough Chinese (zhōngwén) I'll then have the ability to embarrass myself in not one, but TWO languages.  This will be my crowning achievement.  

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For help with pronouncing Chinese words, click here.

Photo courtesy of Kai Hendry via Flickr.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Multi-Phrases: Phrases in Multiple Languages - Good Morning

Every Friday I'm going to do something fun and a little different.   Today I'm starting a series called "Multi-Phrases: Phrases in Multiple Languages" where I pick a phrase and tell you how to say it in several different languages.  My hope is that if you follow this series, you'll eventually be able to have some basic conversational skills in each language.  If you have split personality disorder, I recommend allocating a different language to each of your personalities.  It'll give your "episodes" much more flavor and ensure that you're never lonely because your doctors will need translators for each of your personalities.  You can be a genius and a loon at the same time, and isn't that what we all want in life?

The phrase for this post is "good morning".  Below you'll find "good morning" written out in each language (with pronunciation help for languages that don't use roman characters), followed by a video to help you hear and see how the phrase is spoken.  If you would like to see this phrase in a language other than those mentioned here, use the comments section of this post to make your request and I'll do my best to track down a video.

Japanese: おはよう (Ohayō)

Chinese: 早上好 (Zǎoshang hǎo)

Spanish: Buenos días

Italian: Buongiorno

German: Guten Morgen

French: Bonjour

Korean: 좋은 아침 (Joh-eun achim)

Russian: доброе утро (Dobroe utro)

Swahili: Asubuhi njema

Portuguese: Bom dia

Hindi: अच्छा सुबह (acchā subaha)
See time: 1:30

Afrikaans: Goeie môre

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ordering Food At a Chinese Restaurant - Part Two

 This post is part two of a the two part series Ordering Food At a Chinese Restaurant.  You can find part one here.

In this post, we continue learning how to order food at a Chinese restaurant.  Now that you've come to terms with the fact that you won't become a social outcast if you make a few errors while speaking Chinese, we can get down to the nitty gritty.  Today we're going to learn how to tell the waiter what we want and hope that he brings it to us quickly and without spitting in it.  No, I'm not making the generalization that all waiters at Chinese restaurants spit in food.  I'm making a much broader generalization that includes waiters of all races and ethnicities, from all sorts of restaurants and food establishments:  anywhere you eat a waiter could potentially spit in your food.  I like to think of it as a little something extra that I didn't pay for, and don't we all like to get something for free?  On the other hand, you may be a little put off by freebies such as this.  If that's the case, be nice to your waiter, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.

Now that you're paranoid about waiters, let's remember that we're supposed to relax and speak Chinese fearlessly.  In the previous post, we learned how to say "I want..." (Wǒ yào...) , and "he/she wants..." (Tā yào...).  Now I'm going to tell you what you want.  You want "this" (zhège 这个).

The word "this" (zhège) in Mandarin is made up of two parts.  Part A: "zhè" means "this" by itself, and can be used to say things like, "What is this (zhè)?  This (zhè) isn't what I ordered!  Take this (zhè) back to the kitchen or I'll have you fired!".  You can use it to say things like that, but I don't recommend it.  Remember our discussion earlier about spit?  Let's move on.  Part B of the word "this" (zhège) is "ge".  "Ge" is a measure word.  In English we use measure words from time to time when we say things like "a herd of elephants".  The word "herd" in this example can be considered a measure word, as can words like "bunch" (a bunch of poisonous plants), and "flock" (a flock of geese).  In Chinese, however, measure words are much more prevalent and there are a multitude of such words specific to all different groups of items.  For the sake of ease, I recommend learning measure words right along with your vocabulary so that the proper measure word for each item is burned directly into your brain.  It only hurts for a moment.  The measure word "ge" is a default measure word of sorts, and is also the measure word used when referring to people.  Why, you may be wondering, do we sometimes need to use "ge" when we're saying "this" (zhège)?  Because, in a sense, we're saying "I want this thing".  Why do we need to use "ge" at all?  Because that's part of the Chinese language - don't worry your pretty little head about it.  Just memorize the word "this" (zhège) and start using it.  Do it enough, and it'll begin to make sense - sort of like doing taxes.  If you don't do taxes, then I can't help you, and you may want to be on the lookout for the IRS.

Now let's put the words we've learned together and say "I want this." (Wǒ yào zhège.).  Do I even need to mention that you can say "I want this." (Wǒ yào zhège.) and point to anything on the menu thus having effectively ordered your meal in Mandarin?  Definitely not.  I strongly suspect that once you realize that you can now speak an entire sentence in Mandarin, you may have the insatiable urge to start roaming around pointing to all manner of things and telling everyone in Mandarin that you want those things - but I recommend fighting that urge.  You don't want to get carried away this early in the game, and there will be plenty more sentences to get carried away with later.

If you really can't control yourself and you're getting so excited about being able to say your first sentence in Chinese that you can't contain your emotion, you may want to put that energy to good use by learning a few specific food words.  The word for "beef" is "niúròu" (牛肉).  Add that to what you already know, and you can say, "I want beef." (Wǒ yào niúròu.) They may ask you what kind of beef dish you want, but just repeat yourself firmly and offer no further information.  If they persist, feel free to break down and cry, or to change your mind and say that you want chicken (jīròu 鸡肉).  Hopefully at this point they'll just give up and head back to the kitchen to fetch you something made of chicken, and there's a good chance it'll be something delicious.

Well, now you can order food at a Chinese restaurant.  No, we aren't using big, complicated phrases yet, but I'm of the opinion that the most important factor with regard to successful language learning is to start using the language as soon as possible.  This means learning a few simple words and putting them to use right away.  If you want to add a few more useful words to your vocabulary, I've posted a short list here of related words that you might like to know (including all of the words we've discussed in this short series as well as words from previous posts).   Below you'll find the new words from this post.  Now get yourself to a Chinese restaurant, pronto!

1.  zhège (这个) this
What is the meaning of this (zhège)? This (zhège) isn't what I ordered!

2.  niúròu (牛肉) beef 
Are you sure this is beef (niúròu)?  It looks more like cat...

3.  jīròu (鸡肉) chicken
If I asked you to take this back and bring me chicken (jīròu) instead, would you promise not to spit in it?

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For help learning to pronounce Mandarin Chinese words, click here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ordering Food At a Chinese Restaurant - Part One

One of the best ways to learn a language is to use it.  Even if you aren't sure you're speaking correctly, just go ahead and go for it.  While your Chinese speaking friends are laughing at you, you'll have plenty of time to plan your revenge, and then you'll move on and be none the worse for wear.  Let's be logical.  I don't know a single native English speaker who has never made a verbal error.  In fact, some of my friends make them all the time (and I probably hold the all time record...)!  Some people have even made a sport out of it (think Clark Griswold...).  There's no reason to be afraid of making mistakes.  Quite often, those most successful at learning foreign languages have one thing in common - the ability to speak fearlessly whether they can speak perfectly or not.  Fortunately, we can choose to speak fearlessly whether we're really on the verge of panic or not.  No one will really know what you're thinking, and foreign language learner or not, that's often for the best.

Now that you're no longer afraid of speaking Chinese (think positive - I always do, especially when using jumper cables - the results have been nothing short of spectacular), the best thing you can do is to find a place to use your Chinese.  A Chinese restaurant is a great option.  Even if you're still nervous, you can take solace in the fact that none of the waiters know you and that if you embarrass yourself beyond repair, you can switch to sushi restaurants for the foreseeable future.  You may be surprised to find that when you start speaking to a person in his own native tongue, he is usually very gracious and flattered that you're even making an effort to learn.  I've usually found this to be the case.  I can't tell you how many times I've just said hello to someone in their native language and ended up talking to them for a good 15 minutes about why I know how to say hello in their language and why I care (e.g. if the Soviet Union ever rises again I'd like to be able to complain about it in Russian).  No, you won't get very far in China if the only word you know is "hello", but you'll get a much better response than you would if you just ran around asking for help in English as if everyone should know it.  You'll usually get the same response from people living in the U.S. who aren't native English speakers.  Hearing one's native language can be very comforting to a person living abroad, so when you take the plunge and start speaking another language to someone, focus on the fact that they're probably too busy being glad to hear their own language to waste time calculating all the times you said "eggplant" when you meant to say "mustache".  In fact, I'm already much more concerned with the fact that your first attempts at speaking Chinese to a native Chinese person could possibly involve the word "mustache", but I digress.

Let's get to the words of the day, shall we?  If you're going to be ordering food at a Chinese restaurant, you should probably know what to call yourself.  After all, we want to make sure that the waiter knows that this food is in fact for you, and not for the people sitting at the table next to you or the busboy who made eyes at you when you walked in.  The word for "I" is "wǒ" (我).  It's pronounced "whoa", as in, "Whoa, I (wǒ) can't believe we didn't discuss this word in an earlier blog post."   The word "wǒ" also means "me", as in "Maybe you should leave the writing to me (wǒ)."

Now let's suppose that you're eating out with a friend.  You don't want your friend to feel neglected, so lets assume you'll be ordering for her as well.  Speaking to the waiter in Chinese while your friend sits there looking confused is also a perk that should motivate you to keep up your language learning, so take some time to enjoy the moment.  When you order for your friend, you'll need to know the word "her", which is "tā" (她).  "Tā" also means "she", so you can say things like, "She (tā) has offered to pay the bill.  Isn't that generous of her (tā)?" You can then gesture politely towards your friend, who, not wanting to be left out, will smile and nod at the waiter as if she understood everything you were saying.  If by chance your friend happens to be male (hopefully you've known all along), then you'll be happy to know that "tā" also means "he" or "him", so you're also free to say "He (tā) was the one who hit that car in the parking lot.  Feel free to have a few words with him (tā) on our way out."  I will point out, however, that when the word "tā" means "he" or "him", it's written "他" though when it means "she" or "her", it's written "她".

The next word you'll need to know is "want", which is "yào" (要).  Add this to what we've learned so far, and you can say "Wǒ yào..." (I want...).  Now we're getting somewhere.  In my next post I'll tell you what you want and maybe even why you want it, but I (wǒ) think for now we'll review today's words and give you some time to curl up in the fetal position chanting them.  Until next time.

1.   wǒ (我) I, me
I (wǒ) hope your friend likes tofu.

2.   tā (她) she, her
I'm going to ask the waiter to bring her (tā) some.

3.   tā (他) he, him
He (tā) might not charge you for it - if you're nice. 

4.   yào (要) want
I want (yào) lunch now.  Perhaps I (wǒ) should have eaten before writing this blog.

This post is part one of a two part series.  For part two, click here.

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For help learning to pronounce Mandarin Chinese words, click here.

Photo courtesy of Eric Chan

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Are Some Languages More Difficult to Learn?

When I was in college I literally spent hours writing Chinese characters over and over on paper and on a dry erase board.  I'm clearly a kinesthetic learner, and the only way I've found that I can really hammer those characters into my brain is via repetition.  I spent plenty of time making flash cards as well, but truthfully it wasn't so much using the flash cards that helped me to learn the words as making them (definitely kinesthetic - see!).  I know there are people out there who learn easily by just reading or hearing something once or twice, but I'm not one of those people  - and if you're one of those people and you aren't already fluent in a second language, kick yourself in the shins for me.  Some of us just don't have a photographic memory, and with complicated languages like Chinese, we find ourselves with a seemingly impossible mountain to climb as we strive for fluency (or even the ability to order some good dim sum...).  My point is that for many of us, learning a language can be very off putting.  When we think about the thousands of words we need to learn, the grammar, the idiomatic expressions and so on, it's not surprising that I frequently hear people say that they just can't learn a second language.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it just isn't true.  Anyone can learn a second language if they can figure out what methods of learning work for them.

This brings me to an important question.  If it's possible for anyone to learn a language, does that mean that all languages are equally difficult, or easy, to learn?   I would say no, and my reasoning is this - some languages involve more visual learning than others.  As a native English speaker, I find learning languages written with roman letters easy.  Aside from the occasional spelling error, learning a second language that uses the same system of writing that I'm already accustomed to is just a matter of learning to speak the language.  Essentially, I can already write in the language.  This would apply to any language that uses roman characters (think Italian, German, Portuguese, etc.).  Yes, many written languages that use roman letters have their own special characters, accent marks, and other distinguishing features, but the basics are the same and those few extra marks aren't typically difficult to master.  Even if the language has letters that are pronounced differently from how an English speaker would pronounce them, it usually isn't a problem.  In contrast, consider a language like Chinese, which uses characters.  Chinese characters are derived from ancient pictograms and thus instead of using letters that represent individual sounds, each Chinese character represents a syllable.  As with English, a Chinese word can contain more than one syllable, but with Chinese, each syllable is represented by one character.  For learners of Chinese who are used to writing with roman letters, learning to read and write Chinese can seem a daunting task.  Rather than simply learning a few dozen letters which symbolically represent the few dozen sounds that make up the language, a learner of Chinese must learn literally thousands of characters to represent the many syllables used in spoken Chinese.  Add to that the fact that a syllable of Mandarin Chinese can be vocalized using one of its four distinct tones, and the fact that the same syllable typically has a distinct character for each of those tones (because the characters represent a picture of the word rather than how the word sounds), and the result is dizzying.

So, are some languages more complicated to learn than others?  Absolutely.  What are we going to do about that?  I think the key is to make learning complicated languages a part of every day life.  That's what this blog is all about.  I'm bringing you a few words of Chinese (and maybe some other languages in the future if we really get going) each day so that together we can commit them to memory and then go on with our day without getting overwhelmed.  We learn new words in our native languages all the time and we think nothing of it.  Learning a second language doesn't have to be any different.  As far as the Chinese characters go, seeing a few Chinese characters a day is a great way to start exposing yourself to Chinese writing.  Just from reading this post you've already learned some important things about written Chinese.  That's a good start, and as we all know, with any task, large or small, you've got to start somewhere.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dusting Off The Old Chinese Books

Today I sent my husband out to the garage to get my old Chinese textbooks.  Yes, they were in the garage collecting dust.  No I don't feel guilty about that.  It's been a while since I've had the time to sit down and read any book - let alone one that involves learning.  As of late, most of my days have been spent cleaning up toys, complaining about how there's "never anything good to eat around here", and making important decisions like choosing to ignore the fishy crackers mashed into the carpet in the back seat of our Buick Century.  Learning Chinese wasn't really on my mind for obvious reasons, but now that our youngest is sleeping better at night and now that I'm realizing that there's never really any perfect time for a busy adult to (gasp!) learn something new (are you thinking "old dog"? I am...), I've decided to just knock a few nonessentials (eating?) out of my schedule and hit the books.

Today's word of the day (first ever!) is yīnggāi (应该 ) "should" or "ought to" as in I should (yīnggāi) have gotten these books out earlier.  I should (yīnggāi) have killed that spider in the corner of the back window when I saw it a couple mornings ago (now I don't know where it went and it's giving me nightmares).  Or, I should (yīnggāi) stop eating large quantities of ice cream each day because it's likely that it won't help me maintain my figure, keep wrinkles at bay, and increase my cognitive abilities (a girl can dream...).  Also, I should (yīnggāi) explain a little about how Chinese words are pronounced - for the benefit of anyone out there who is new to Chinese.

Spoken Chinese is the stuff horror movies are made of because of its four tones.  Each syllable of a Chinese word is said using one of these four tones.  Use the wrong tone and you might just say the wrong word.  A classic example starts with the word "mǎ" (马) which means "horse".  Notice the little symbol above the a?  That little v-shaped symbol means that the syllable "ma" is pronounced with the third of the four Chinese tones.  Here's the syllable "ma" written in pinyin (Chinese written with roman letters to help one learn pronunciation) with each of the four tonal indicators in order - mā, má, mǎ, mà.  Now, as I mentioned before, if you pronounce "ma" using the third tone (mǎ), it means "horse".  If, however, you pronounce it with the first tone (mā), it means "mother".  Here's where I feel the need to interject a word of caution:  If, in trying to be polite, you gesture to someone's mother "mā" and proceed to ask how she is while incorrectly referring to her as a horse "mǎ", you might just offend someone.  Personally, if you referred to my mother as a horse, I would no longer consider you friend worthy, and you might just find your picture on my dart board (if I had one...).  I'm just saying.  Anyways, back to "ma".  If you pronounce "ma" using the fourth tone (mà) it becomes a verb, meaning "to curse, swear or scold".  Let's avoid cursing our friends' mothers, shall we?  Do you see where I'm going with this?  It's imperative to not neglect learning the important differences between the tones.

For the sake of your friends' mothers, you might just want to check out this handy link to more information on the four Chinese tones, which includes sound clips to help you learn how to say them correctly.  Also, for fun, here's a neat little game that allows you to practice tones.  Learning how to accurately use the four tones is essential.  Essential, essential, essential.  I think I'll say it one more time so you know I mean it: essential!

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's review the four words that we've learned today.  If you read this post without intending to learn anything, you might have just learned a few things against your will.  Unfortunately, it's to late to do anything about that.  So here are our words:

1.  yīnggāi (应该) should, ought to
Should (yīnggāi) I have learned the four tones before trying to talk about your mother? You bet.

2. mǎ (马) horse
No, your mother does NOT look like a horse (mǎ).  My mistake.

3. mā (妈) mother
Your mother (mā) is actually quite beautiful now that her plastic surgery is complete.

4.  mà (骂) to curse, swear, or scold
I'm really didn't intend to curse (mà) your mother.  How can I make it up to you?  Do you take debit?

So there you have it.  My first standard post.  Feel free to leave comments if you'd like.  Specifically, I'm open to suggestions about future words of the day (but keep it clean, of course -there are 10 year olds out there who also want to learn how not to insult their friends' mothers).  And, of course, feel free to suggest corrections to any of my posts if I should happen to make any errors.  If I were perfect, I'd be speaking fluent Mandarin by now, and, naturally, I'd be insulting all kinds of peoples' mothers.

Don't forget to check out this weeks interactive vocabulary list.

Image courtesy of Timothy Vollmer

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Simple "Hello"

Did you know that there are somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 languages in the world?  That means there are somewhere between 4,999 and 9,999 groups of people in the world that I can't really communicate with.  I find this bothersome.  Sure, I can say "hello" in quite a few languages, but "hello" won't get you to the Eiffel Tower when you're stranded in mid Paris because you lost your tour group and you can't find a Taxi driver who speaks (or is willing to acknowledge that he speaks) English.  Neither will "hello" get you a good price on a pearl necklace at a Shanghai street market.  You have to speak enough Chinese to haggle a little - trust me, I've been there.  "Hello" can certainly move you from "stranger" to "friendly face" in the eyes of a new acquaintance, and there is certainly something to be said for greetings in general, but if we really intend to communicate in depth with a person, it takes much, much more than a simple "hello".  That's what this blog is about.  This blog is about going beyond simple greetings and learning to realize true connections with other human beings from other cultures.  This blog is an experiment, of sorts, as I seek to teach myself how to communicate sans English though, perhaps, I may humiliate myself in the process (which, if I'm lucky, will just make for better reading).

There are millions of people in the world who speak more than one language.  In countries like Canada, children are often taught multiple languages from a young age, which better prepares them to be global citizens.  In the United States we treat foreign language learning differently.  Yes, foreign language classes are the norm in high schools across the country, but there are plenty of adults whose high school Spanish classes didn't stick.  In an age where "living globally" is becoming a trend of blitzkrieg proportions, it seems that being a "polyglot" ought to be held in higher regard.  The truth, however, is that as Americans we often find ourselves too busy with our fast paced, American dream style lives to sit ourselves down and learn another language.  I've been in love with foreign languages for years, yet I still go months without improving my Chinese or Spanish skills.  It seems that, for now, life has gotten the better of me, but no more.  There's always time for a new adventure, and the time for me is now.  My Chinese has floated along at mediocre for long enough, and there are still too many people out there to whom I can't even speak that basic, just enough, "hello".

My mission here is simple:  to chronicle for you one woman's quest to communicate.  To share with you my struggles to learn Chinese and perhaps a few tidbits of other languages as well - just to keep things interesting. Hopefully there are others out there in the big world of blogging who share my passion for languages and who can also relate to my struggles in finding the time to learn them.  I hope to share my journey in a way that will allow my readers to learn along with me.  After all, and certainly to my benefit, there's something to be said for learning by teaching.   I do fear nonetheless that a more accurate description of what lies ahead might be found in the phrase "those who can't do, teach".  Time will tell...