Archive for May, 2010

Words in Chinese

Due to popular demand (well, ok, one question, but hey, I take what I can get around here), I’ve decided to start off my “pitfalls for foreigners learning Chinese” series with number four on my list: assuming words are words. Here’s what I mean by that.

For more advanced speakers, imagine, if you will, your innocent self back in Chinese 101. In your first week–no wait, your second week (your first week was probably spent on pronunciation drills)–you learn some words. You might learn things like 学生(xuésheng) ‘student’ and 老师(lǎoshī) ‘teacher’ and 朋友(péngyou) ‘friend’. You are excited: “I know three words in Chinese! I am awesome!” You go on your merry way and learn more words. You come across 钢笔(gāngbǐ) ‘pen’, 铅笔(qiānbǐ) ‘pencil’, and 毛笔(máobǐ) ‘writing brush’. You think to yourself–or maybe your teacher even points out to you–“These words all have a 笔(bǐ). They are all writing implements. They must be compounds! I can recognize a compound word! I am awesome!”

Then you learn a few more words, say 先生(xiānshēng) ‘Mr.’, 医生(yīshēng) ‘doctor’, and 老(lǎo) ‘old’. If you are an extra clever student, you begin to be suspicious. Are 学生(xuésheng),医生(yīshēng),and 先生(xiānshēng) compounds, just like the 笔(bǐ) words were? I know 老(lǎo), and I know 老师(lǎoshī), so  what does 师(shī) mean? This is why you have learned characters. Without them, you might never have these suspicions–you would just wonder why all Chinese words sound alike. But you have learned characters, and you know how to use a dictionary. You think to yourself, “I will look up all the individual characters! I will learn their meanings! Everything is a compound word! My dictionary will reveal their secrets! I am awesome!” And so you look up 朋(péng) and 友(yǒu). You find they both mean ‘friend’. You think to yourself, “What a waste of effort. Why say ‘friend-friend’? Surely just ‘friend’ is good enough.” So you try a sentence: 她是我的朋。(tā shì wǒde péng) ‘She is my 朋.’  And the result is … actually I’ve never tried. I’m guessing befuddlement. You are humbled. Chastened, even. You think, “My textbook must actually know what it’s talking about. I will abide by its pronouncements.”

You continue your studies with fewer exclamation points. You start to learn verbs. You learn how to say sing: 唱歌(chànggē) and dance: 跳舞(tiàowǔ). You discover that you can’t just say drive or read, you have to say drive a car: 开车(kāichē) or read a book: 看书(kànshū). Your neighbor falls asleep in class one day and you learn the word for sleep: 睡觉(shuìjiào). You memorize them all. And then you learn … you were wrong again. If you dance quickly, you don’t 跳舞得很快(tiàowǔ de hěn kuài). You 跳舞跳得很快(tiàowǔ tiào de hěn kuài)。If you drive a car for three hours, you don’t 开车三个小时(kāichē sān gè xiǎoshí)。 You 开三个小时的车(kāi sān gè xiǎoshí de chē)。That 跳(tiào) that you thought was part of a compound, that 开(kāi) that you couldn’t say by itself, there they are–not quite alone, but not in a compound, either. Then you hear a sentence like 她又唱又跳(tā yòu chàng yòu tiào) ‘She sings and dances’–not a hint of a compound, nor an object for that matter, in sight. Even 睡觉(shuìjiào) ‘sleep’, it turns out, isn’t exactly a word. If you sleep for a long time, you don’t 睡觉很长时间(shuìjiào hěn cháng shíjiān)。You 睡很长时间(shuì hěn cháng shíjiān), and if you feel like it, you tack on a 的觉(de jiào)–this despite the fact that you were the annoying student who asked “Can I say 觉(jiào) all by itself?”, and they told you, they told you, that you couldn’t do it.

But the more you learn, the more you realize that words in general seem to be a little more fluid in Chinese than they are in English. Chinese people really are very fond of two syllable words, so if a word is only one syllable long, well, you tack something else on the end (most often a 子/zi). If your compound words are getting out of control, on the other hand, into impossibly long four syllable territory, just cut some syllables out. 超级市场(chāojí shìchǎng) ‘supermarket’ is far too long–超市(chāoshì) will do just fine. Getting your hot chocolate fix at Starbucks? Forget about 热巧克力(rè qiǎokèlì) (even if that is what the menu says). Just get yourself a 热巧(rèqiǎo)。And sometimes you can even get rid of a syllable from a two syllable word–可以(kěyǐ) ‘can’ can turn into plain old 可(kě), though I’m guessing only under certain circumstances.

Hmmm … I was supposed to also help people avoid these pitfalls. For this one, I think that at the beginning level, awareness is probably good enough. Expect the unexpected. Don’t let your defenses down. Learn your characters so you have some help in tracking these bits and pieces of words. That sort of thing.

Common pitfalls for beginning Chinese learners

I thought it might be helpful to make a list of common mistakes beginning Chinese learners make. I’ll list them here, then expand in subsequent posts about what I mean and how to avoid them.  So my short list includes:

  • Pronunciation–more specifically, tones, consonants, and vowels (that probably just about covers it for the beginner)
  • Assuming the grammar is like English
  • Assuming the grammar is like English, only easier
  • Assuming words are words
  • Assuming that knowing a character means you’ll be able to understand what it’s doing in a sentence

Are there others that I’m missing?

Our verb phrase is not like your verb phrase

I learned the word for verb phrase in Chinese the other day.  (For the curious, it’s 动词短语/dòngcí duǎnyǔ.) We were talking about where to put a time phrase in a sentence where the the event is described with a verb-noun compound, such as 开车(kāichē) ‘to drive (= open + vehicle) ‘or 看书(kànshū) ‘to read a book (= look + book)’.  The trick with these sentences is that, if you want to talk about how long an event lasts, the phrase goes between the verb and the noun, so the sentence “I read a book for an hour” is translated as 我看了一个小时的书:

kàn le xiǎoshí   de shū
I look   le   one   CLS   hour de   book

There are a few things about this structure that might pique the interest of a syntactician, I suspect, such as what the 的 is doing there and why the time phrase ends up in the middle of what we thought was a compound word.  If I have any brilliant insight about those, I’ll be sure to dedicate another post to it.  (If you have any brilliant insight into them, feel free to leave a comment!)  But, back on topic, what is the verb phrase in this sentence?  Since I’m asking the question in English, I think the answer must be 看了一个小时的书(kànle yī gè xiǎoshí de shū)–although it’s been a long time since I took syntax, and maybe there’s a fancy way of analyzing it so it’s not all in the verb phrase.  However, in Chinese, the term verb phrase is apparently used outside of technical linguistics analyses, and if I asked instead what the 动词短语 was, the answer, I’m told, would be 看书(kànshū). Does anyone know if this is also the way the term is used in formal syntax in Chinese? And do we have a name to describe this kind of verb-thing-that’s-not-a-word-and-not-a-phrase in English?

The Karma Conjunction

In Chinese, 因为 … 所以 … (yīnwèi … suǒyǐ…) ‘because … therefore … ‘ is known as 因果连词(yīnguǒ liáncí)–the karma conjunction.  Well, ok, it’s really probably better translated as the cause and effect conjunction, but karma is the same word, and karma conjunction is much catchier.  Maybe English speakers would be more inspired to study grammar if we had more interesting names for grammatical terms.  The past perfect subjunctive (“if only I had sent her flowers, maybe she would have forgiven me.”) could be the “get over it already” mood, for example.  And I bet people would be much more likely to remember what that was than a past perfect subjunctive anyway.

This should be Chinese 101

Compliments of a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous: How to politely avoid questions!

Discussing one’s income is not considered taboo amongst Chinese people.  However, many of us foreigners would prefer not to divulge such information.  Here are some strategies you can use to avoid the question without causing the questioner to lose face.

These few phrases answer the “How much do you make?” type questions. However, it can easily be adapted to fit other probing questions.

1. 不算太高。(bù suàn tài gāo) It [our income] is not considered very high.

2. 那要看公词和个人的情况。(nà yào kàn gōngsī hé gèrén de qíngkuàng)  It depends on the company’s and individual’s situation.

3. 还行吧/还可以/还凑合/马马虎虎。(hái xíng ba/ hái kěyǐ/ hái còuhe/ mǎmǎhǔhǔ) Not bad.

And my favorite…

4. 比上不足,比下有余。(bǐ shàng bùzú, bǐ xià yǒuyú) Better than some, but not as good as others. i.e. average.

We also learned that you can say things like 怎么说呢? (zěnme shuō ne/how should I say it?) and jump to a different topic completely, avoiding giving any answer.

So I think I’ve found it …

… the most difficult syllable to pronounce in Chinese. My vote? lüè (as in 略). Individually, none of the sounds are so bad. The /l/, so far as I know, is just like English [l] (though I’m sure someone will come along and tell me otherwise–and yes, for the phoneticians among you, I do know that it’s a bit misleading to say English [l] and leave it at that). The /ü/ is like German ü. The /e/ in this context is, I think, somewhere between [ɛ] (like ‘bet’) and [æ] (like ‘bat’). The tone is falling, which I think is the easiest one to pronounce. You can hear a slowly and clearly enunciated example of the syllable on this page, second column, third row. (Please don’t take that as an endorsement of their website–I can’t say one way or the other because I haven’t looked at it beyond the page I linked.)

I know what I need to do, I think. Just take those sounds and squish them into one syllable. It doesn’t seem so horrible. I can pronounce, at least passably, all sorts of other words ending in [üe]. No one complains much about my xue or yue or jue. And no one has ever complained about my ‘l’s. But this one, for some reason, I just can’t get.

Update: about that [l]. I thought maybe my problem was that it’s not in fact an apical [l] like I was using, so I made my husband pronounce his Chinese [l] for me. Sure enough, it’s a laminal dental. So was his English [l], incidentally, even in a word like ‘leaf’. The tongue/lip gymnastics seemed easier to me this way, so I tried it again, but no luck. My husband tells me he doesn’t even hear an [l] when I attempt the syllable, he hears an [n]–and he’s a northerner, not a native speaker of one of those dialects of Chinese that doesn’t distinguish [l] and [n].

Chinese: where numbers are numbers

In Chinese, numbers are numbers. Yes, I can see you all thinking to yourselves, “Brilliant insight! Now I too can speak Chinese!” But English speakers, work with me here. How many English numbers do we really treat like numbers? If I want to know how many people were at the party, I ask “How many people were at the party?” But here’s a little list of other places we use numbers:

– Age
– Page number
– Telephone number
– Floor in a building
– Time (on a clock)
– Date
– Distance

Now, how would you ask questions about these? The first thing that comes to mind for me:

How old are you?
What page are you on?
What’s your phone number?
What floor do you live on?
What time is it?
What’s the date?
How far is it?

How many ‘how many’s ? None. (For the last one, you could say “How many miles is it?” For the first one, you could ask “how many months is she?” for a baby. For the ‘what’ questions, I don’t think it’s possible. Compare Chinese, where we’re at least 6/7:

– Age: use 几(jǐ) ‘how many–for small numbers’*
– Page number: use 多少(duōshǎo) ‘how many’
– Telephone number: use 多少
– Floor in a building: use 几
– Time (on a clock): use 几*
– Date: use 几
– Distance: use 多(duō)


For age and time, other possibilities exist. You can ask about time with 什么(shénme) ‘what’. For age questions, 几 is for children. You can ask older people with 多大 (duōdà). I’m not quite sure how to translate or classify that one. It’s kind of like ‘how big’. Likewise, I’m not sure how to classify the 多 (duō) for distance, or if ‘how’ is the best translation, hence the 6/7. Is it a coincidence that the 多(duō) and 多大(duōdà) questions in Chinese correspond to the ‘how’ questions in English? They feel more adverbial to me, but of course they do because I’m an English speaker.

There’s one other exception to the “numbers are numbers” principle that I know of in Chinese–if you’re asking which year it is, you use 哪 (nǎ) ‘which’. I suppose this is because 几 is only for small numbers, and 多少 is used with time to ask about duration–how many (多少)months you’ve been in China, for example.

FAQ: Didn’t you bias your results with the examples you chose?

A: Of course I did, with the English at least. For Chinese, I’m sure there are other numbers that aren’t number-like but I don’t happen to know what they are. My point, really, is that this set of questions takes English speakers by surprise, and if you forget you’re talking about a number and use ‘what’, the Chinese person your talking to tends to be rather puzzled.



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 7 other followers