Why tones and I were not friends: how to improve your Chinese tones

You sit down in your first mandarin class and they show you something like this:

Pinyin Tone Chart

 

You practice the four different tones.  ā, á, ǎ, à.  You practice differentiating between your mother (妈: mā) and a horse (马: mǎ).  (Fair enough!  Though, I’ve often wondered how Chinese people whine to their mother.  My kids manage to make the sound ma into an entirely new tone altogether!)  You practice different pinyin drills, different tones together, the neutral tone.

Easy, right?

So, so, so wrong.

My hate-relationship with Chinese tones began way after I had begun learning Chinese.  I’d already lived in China for a couple of years, but after I started learning Chinese full time, for the first 6 months of being generally unintelligible, I’d still gotten away with being able to fudge my tones.  I was able to communicate, people would get my meaning, and just make allowances for it.  As someone who loved talking, I wasn’t going to let minor pronunciation problems stop me from communicating.

So I hacked away.  Well that’s not what I thought.  In my eyes, I forged ahead, building confidence in my ability to communicate, excited at how I grew to be able to babble on much like I did in English.  What with the new vocabulary I was learning, and the new grammar I was practicing, I felt armed to conquer the Chinese language.

That is, until I stopped to hear myself speak. To really hear myself speak.

After 2 years of absorbing the language and 6 months of seriously studying Chinese in Beijing (where, by the way, tones really matter), my husband and I made a video for some Mandarin speaking friends back at home, a video postcard if you will.  I wrote the whole script, even threw in a few jokes, and we sat down to record it.  I sat down and babbled away, whereas my husband wanted to do take after take after take until he was happy.  After editing it and sending it off, I felt as though we’d really made a lot of progress in six months.  When our friends (native Chinese speakers) received our video postcard they were really positive about our progress. But the feedback that kept coming back to us was how great my husband’s Chinese was.

I have to admit I was a bit cheesed off.  Thankfully my husband is not the sort to gloat — in fact, he was even indignant that he’d hadn’t done a thing but read my script out!  But after I calmed down (ok, it took a while!) I realised that there had to be some truth to what they were saying.  So I sat down to watch the video. Properly.

When I sat down to deliberately listen to my Mandarin, I realized they were right. My husband’s Mandarin, his spoken Mandarin, the Mandarin he needs to use every day in order to communicate, from what you could see in the video, was excellent. Mine, however, was more of an indistinguishable flow of words.  Not to say I couldn’t be understood, because I did throw in enough vocabulary and gestures and emphasis to give my meaning, but I could no longer ignore that my tones were absolutely everywhere and this was seriously debilitating my Chinese.

At that point I had a bit of a meltdown.  After all the hard work I’d put in, all the confidence I had in my language was gone.  For about a week I actually could not speak Chinese.  I’d open my mouth, completely panic at what was going to come out of my mouth, and just freeze up.  I spent a few days hating Chinese tones, or threatening to move down to 南方 (nánfāng: the South) where tones don’t matter so much, and generally just being infuriated by the insanity of this language.  But when the emotion subsided, I knew, I finally realized, that tones were something I could no longer ignore.

(Interestingly, it was a little hard to find things online on how to help my particular problem.  It’s not that I can’t say the tones.  I always could say single-syllable words very well when reading the pinyin with tone markers.  I could get through a vocab list with no problem.  My problem was more that I wasn’t remembering the tones of new words (or old words for that matter) and was just making them up or replacing them with English intonation when I spoke.)

So it was time to get back to basics.

It was slightly demoralizing to be going from book 4 of a series back to book 1 (I was learning from New Practical Chinese Reader at the time), but I did it.  Not in my classes, but for a period of time, my entire time of self-study was going back to the beginners book and not moving on until I had absolutely nailed the tones.  I upgraded my Skritter account to a paid subscription and changed the mode to Tones Only.  (In my opinion, as much as I love Pleco, doing this on Skritter was preferred to using Pleco for tones practice.  I think it has to do with the unlimited testing process (ie, keep going until you feel like a break with the same words coming up again and again, rather than having a list of words to work through only once)).  I sat down and wrote down every word in the vocab lists (even wǒ, hǎo, nǐ …) with the correct pinyin – including tone markers (can you believe I had hardly ever bothered to note down the tones when writing pinyin before!) because I started to realize that I hadn’t in my head associated even the most basic of words with their tones.  It really, truly, was back to basic, and it was a hard slog.

But it was totally worth it.

I learned the difference between

  • zhòngyào (重要: important) and zhōngyào (中药: Chinese medicine)
  • and yǎnjing (眼睛: eyes) and yǎnjìng (眼镜: glasses) (actually I still find those two really hard to say properly and 你戴眼睛吗? is just scary if you think about it), not to mention燕京 (Yānjīng: yes, the beer!)

And I learned that

  • you can’t go to the markets and ask for tù dòu (兔痘: rabbitpox, compare with tǔdòu 土豆: potato)
  • and 服务员 (fúwùyuán: waiter/service assistant) will get really confused if you ask for yī wàn mǐfàn (一万米饭: myriads of rice, read as yí wàn: note that 一 changes tone when you read with other words; compare with yī wǎn mǐfàn: 一碗米饭: a bowl of rice, read as yì wǎn)
一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn

一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn

 

Another helpful tip I found at lingomi.com,  which has a great table of 20 simple two-syllable words to build up your ‘tone muscle memory’.  After saying these words in sequence for just a short while, I felt that I could get my head around the differences, particularly anything involving the 2nd and 3nd tones, and especially 2+3 and 3+3.  This familiarization with tones helped me to hear the correct tones when listening, which has helped so much more in being able to replicate the correct tone when speaking.

By far, I’m still no expert.  The other day I still had to ask my 5-year old daughter how to say 裤子 (kùzi: trousers) correctly.  And it sometimes means I have to say a sentence (or particular words) twice over just to make sure I said it correctly (I sound like I have a strange kind of stutter).  But just accepting the fact tones really do matter was the biggest step I took to improving my Chinese.

And now Chinese tones and I are friends.

What about you? Are you friends with Chinese tones?  What’s been your Chinese tone journey?

Going to the Movies? How to use Your Smart Phone to Buy Discount Movie Tickets

My wife and I have lived in Beijing for several years. Over the years we’ve had many friends venture to the movies theaters to watch the latest hits while we stayed home and enjoyed the savings of 10RMB DVDs. Now certainly there is a worthwhile savings for those who are patient enough to wait for a quality copy to come out to the dwindling number of DVD stores, but we all know that going to the theater is just not the same experience. There’s just something about the big screen, especially in 3D that blows away the home viewing experience.

 

A few months ago a local friend gave us some free movie tickets. Another friend then told me about an app that would allow a view of all the current movies and where they were playing. I then chose a 3D movie I knew my life would love to see for her birthday, but you guessed it, the free tickets were for 2D movies. I was now finally motivated, I had to have those tickets, but the price! So I asked another friend and they told me about the app. I actually bought the tickets while standing in line at the theater and saved substantially at the counter.

 

So, if you have an interest in either watching Chinese or Western movies (in their original language) in Beijing, with the original voice soundtrack, and don’t mind or actually would enjoy practicing your Chinese reading by following the Chinese subtitles, then this app is a must. The app is free and is called Mtime, or in pinyin – shiguangwang (时光网). Below is the step-by-step process for downloading and using Mtime.

 

Note that these directions are specific to making your purchase using a Chinese bankcard.

 

1)   Download the app and open it.

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2)   The Home page is at center bottom and the current movie list is displayed with a customer rating from 1-10 (this post will not go into what the other bottom tabs are for).

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3)   Scroll through and pick the movie you’re interested in.

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4)   Push the orange purchase ticket (购票) tab.

 

5)   Here you will have a choice of dates at the top and below a scroll down for movie theaters showing your movie pick. I prefer to narrow the options by tapping the middle green circle tab (地区) so I can choose theaters in my district. If you’re in Chaoyang District you might want to choose the second tab for your nearby (附近) theaters.

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6)   Scroll down and select the tab for your choice of theaters.

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7)   You will see optional show times and prices for your movie tickets. Touch the tab for your preferred show time.

 

8)   Reserve your seat(s) by touching the seats you prefer. You can touch and order as many seats as you want from those that have not been reserved. The seats you reserve will appear orange while the rest are blue. The bottom will display the row (排) and seat numbers (座). When you’re finished you can press the orange next (下一步) button.

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9)   Enter the cell phone number and password you would like to use (there should be at least one numerical digit).

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10)  Now push the light blue register tab (免费注册) (In the future, once you’ve registered, you can tap the log in (登录) tab, that is, assuming it remembers your phone number).

 

 

11) Enter your phone number and your preferred password, then push the tab to obtain your verification number (获取验证吗) and you will receive a text with your verification code.

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12) Enter the code and push the (提交) tab.

 

 

13) You get a pop up window that asks you to confirm that you want to go forward. Touch the definitely (确定) tab if you definitely want the tickets.

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14) Now you have two choices, either registering your email address or cell phone. If you want to order tickets only with your phone, then touch the submit (提交) tab (this post only follows the track of using your cell phone).

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15) You will get a screen that confirms you order and the amount. If it all looks right tap next (下一步).

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16) Now you have a choice of payment options. The simplest is to use the Union Pay online option (使用银联在线付款) which is the second orange tab.

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17) Now enter your bankcard number and touch “next”. You will get a second window. Enter your pin# and your registered phone number and then touch the orange SMS tab. You should receive a text with the required SMS number. Enter the number and touch “Start Pay”.

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18) When processing is complete, Mtime should hold a record of your ticket purchase. You should also receive a text with the purchase details. You can show either of these at the ticket window to receive your tickets.

 

 

Of course I accept no responsibility for the accuracy of this post, or any losses you may incur as a result of following the above instructions.

 

There you have it. Enjoy your movie!

Without cultural understanding, your Chinese could be useless.

Many students of Chinese recognise that learning Chinese is hard, but they are willing to put in the effort to conquer the mountain that is becoming proficient in Chinese. However, if your aim for learning Chinese is to become accepted as part of the community, your study needs to go beyond just learning how to communicate, instead extending into understanding Chinese culture, why people say what they say, do what they do, and think what they think.

Danger of ignoring culture

If you only focus on the practical side of communication, and don’t take the time to learn the culture, then the communication you do have may end up being laden with frustration, and misunderstandings. You only have to spend a little time reading the blogs of expats to get a feel for how common these misunderstandings are.

Here at our Chinese language school in Wudaokou, it is one of our goals to support all our students as they not only learn the language, and become proficient in it, but also gradually develop a fuller understanding and love of Chinese culture.

Cultural understanding includes the basics of knowing when the festivals are, and what they celebrate, but it goes far beyond that and at its greatest extent includes how 5000 years of history influences their understanding of themselves, and in turn their opinions and behaviour.

So how to learn culture?

So how to learn culture? The best way is to live here, learn the language, make friends, and interact with your Chinese friends as much as you can. Over time you will build up your understanding. But we can also be deliberate about acquiring an understanding of the culture. We can learn culture through seeking to make observations about the society around, and backing this up by discussing our observations about the differences and similarities with Chinese people.

For those who are not fortunate to live in China then reading books and watching films is obviously a good first step.

Our blog: making studying Chinese just that bit easier

Taking all this into account, our aim for this blog is to make your life as a student of Chinese just that bit easier. We continuously check the latest blogs, read the latest books, test out the newest apps and attend the conferences on language learning so that you don’t have to. Anything that we find that will help you in your understanding of Chinese language, Chinese cultural we will share. On top of this we will seek to provide anything else that helps our language students as they live in China and study the language, whether that is advice on balancing your time for most effective study, or sharing about the practicalities of renting a flat in China.

Thanks for reading, look out for new articles on a weekly basis, and let us know what you think.

Study Chinese at our school in Wudaokou www.1on1mandarin.com

 

 

 

How to study Chinese – Learning style

It’s been a while since our last post, however, we are trying to update our blog more often and with more posts focused on Chinese language.  Today, is our first post about learning style.

Thinking about studying fills some people with dread, others may really enjoy the though of a new challenge. Whatever your perspective is on studying, when it comes to studying Mandarin, one thing is almost certainly true – it needs a lot of effort and perseverance.

I have only been studying Mandarin a few months, but I have found it really helpful to consider different tips I have learnt over many previous years of study, and to see how I can apply these to studying Mandarin.

The first is that it is useful to know your learning style.

There is a plethora of research available regarding learning styles. A simple summary is that there are four parts to people’s learning styles, each with opposite ends to the spectrum. Most people will not be at either extreme of any of the styles, but it is something useful to consider.

Style

Explanation

Sensory

Like facts

Vs

Intuitive

Like meanings

Visual

Like visual representations

Vs

Verbal

Like explanations with words

Active

Like experimental and group learning

Vs

Reflective

Like to work through problems on their own

Sequential

Like details before the ‘Big picture’

Vs

Global

Like the big picture first, details later

 

I’ve put this first as (if you have a choice!) knowing your learning style can help you to decide where you want to do your learning. This is especially important if you are time pressured, as ending up trying to learn somewhere where there seems to be no real connection with your teachers will be a frustrating experience at best!  I like to know details, and the ‘why?’ of things, so to be in a one to one Chinese class setting is ideal, as I am able to ask immediately if I don’t understand something. However, if you really like group learning, a one to one setting may be more of a hindrance than a help.

 

Chinese character etymology-History of every character

I came across this site and was quite impressed by what he did. Richard Sears made Chinese Character etymology available online after years of effort. Through his site, you can see history of any Chinese character.  You can see how each character written in different ancient Chinese character styles: simplified Chinese character (most common used), traditional Chinese character, Seal Character (篆体字-zhuàn tǐ zì), Bronze Characters(金文-jīn wén) which used Zhou Dynasty and Oracle Characters (甲骨文-jiǎ ɡǔ wén), it may not make sense to you, but it’s very interesting to see how characters change through Chinese history.

Richard found it was very helpful to learn Chinese characters by getting a step by step evolution of the character from its original form and understand the meaning of the character.  If you are interested in learning Chinese character and knowing more than what textbook offers. It’s really something you want to check out. some characters you can see: 马 (horse), 鱼 (fish), 羊 (sheep), 家 (family), 人 (person), 男 (male), 女 (female) and much more……

Lastly, if you are like Richard and very interested in learning Chinese characters, Skritter is one of great tools for Chinese character writing practice, I heard very positive feedbacks about this tool, you may want to try it out if you are serious about learn Chinese characters.

Chinese character etymology:  http://www.chineseetymology.org .

Learn Chinese Characters

Learn Chinese Through Listening to Chinese Music

google-musicA small follow-up of our previous post on methods on how to learn Chinese by watching Chinese TV shows, another way that you can improve your Chinese is to listen to and learn Chinese songs- and don’t forget to put it all to practice by going to the KTV with your friends!

There are many online music streaming websites in China, but one of the popular ones that I enjoy to use is Google China’s 谷歌音乐 (Google Music), however I believe that this service may only work for users who are located within China, as I know that users from the US aren’t able to connect to this service.


We’ll walk through some of the basic features of the Google Music website.

google-music-menu

Looking first at the search bar, we can see several options of searching for the music that you’re looking for:

In the search bar, you can search for songs [搜索音乐] sou1suo3 yin1yue4, or you can search the website [搜索网页] sou1suo3 wang3ye4:

[输入歌手] shu1ru4 ge1shou3: Enter singer’s name

[专辑] zhuan1ji2: Enter album name

[歌曲名称或歌词] ge1qu3ming2cheng1 huo4 ge1ci2: Enter song name or lyrics


google-music-menu

You can also browse the website by looking through the menu:

[首页] shou3ye4: Home page

[排行榜] pai2hang2bang3: Browse by top charts

[音乐分类] yin1yue4 fen1lei4: Browse by song genre

[挑歌] tiao2ge1: Customized selection

[歌手库] ge1shou3ku4: Browse by artist name

[私房歌] si1fang2 ge1: Artist’s recommendations


google-music-homepage

On the homepage, the main view lets you browse by songs of different languages:

[语榜单] hua2yu3 bang4dan1: Chinese Songs

[欧美榜单] ou1mei3 bang4dan1: Europe and American Songs

[日韩榜单] ri4han2 bang4dan1: Japanese and Korean Songs


You can also see a listing of new songs, and popular songs of each language category, and on the very far right, a listing of the popular artists.

[新歌] xin1ge1: New songs

[热歌] re4ge1: Popular songs

[歌手] ge1shou3: Artists


Hopefully this gives you a good start on browsing Google China’s Music service, and will help you on your way in improving your Chinese language learning. [Google Music]

If you have any other popular Chinese music streaming websites that you like to use, be sure to share them with the rest of us in the comments!

Learn Chinese cooking terms

complete

Francisco was planning to cook a great meal for his Chinese friends in his apartment. They arrived early to help him cook. He wanted to have Bavarian stir-fried vegetables with Russian borscht, which his friends had absolutely no experience with. So, he had to give them directions, but oh, no! When he wanted to ask someone to use the spatula to stir the vegetables, or to use the ladle to serve the soup, all he could say was “把那个。。。那个东西。。。那个,快点拿那个把它那个那个,快!”(bǎ nà gè 。。。nà gè dōng xī 。。。nà gè ,kuài diǎn ná nà gè bǎ tā nà gè nà gè ,kuài!) His poor friends didn’t know which kitchen utensil he wanted. It was like that all night.

So, they ordered KFC. Hope this post will help you avoid those situations.

In Chinese, 勺 (sháo) refers to spoon or a round utensil for eating/cooking, but can also refer to something that does what a spatula does – stirring or turning over food in a wok – 锅 (guō). 锅 (guō) is the generic name for most pots, but if you’re looking for a specific utensil or pot, see below. Cookware in general is called 烹调用具 (pēng diào yòng jù).

铲子 or 锅铲

炒勺汤勺饭勺 漏勺 or 笊篱 平低锅 汤锅 汤锅2