Database Issues

During the holiday break, we will be doing some maintenance and upgrades to the website which may cause some mysterious “database errors” to pop-up (looks like they are here already!). As far as I know, these shouldn’t affect usability – they are just error messages that are displayed at the very bottom of the screen. If you do notice any actual issues affecting usability, please let me know.

When the maintenance is complete however, you should hopefully notice slicker (faster!) premium pages, with even more content! More information on the upgrades will be released as they are introduced, so stay tuned…

Happy Holidays from Chinese Learn Online

For those of you wanting to know more about who we are, we created a short, impromptu video during our last recording session. Since this wasn’t planned, the quality and editing isn’t anything fancy, but hopefully the message still comes across. If there’s demand, we could release more “behind the scenes videos” of what goes on around here. Enjoy!

New Flashcard Program

I’m proud to announce version 2 of our flashcard is now available for you to try out. What’s new you ask?

The program is bigger now, so the initial loading time might be a little longer, so please be patient. It now features 2 modes – multiple choice and memorization. The former is basically version 1 of the program. You choose what lesson you’re at, and the program will create a quiz based on vocabulary from your current lesson as well as a few earlier lessons. You’re given a choice of answers to choose from, and the program will keep track of your score.

The new memorization mode uses a different approach. Here, you can specify a range of lessons, in case you don’t want to start all the way from the beginning. The program will then proceed to test your recognition of all the vocabulary taught in each lesson within the range. The difference though is that you won’t be given any choices. A word will be shown on screen and you have to first determine on your own how well you know it. The answer will then be displayed, at which point you can tell the program how well you knew the answer on a scale of 0 to 4, with 0 being no recognition at all, and 4 being immediate recognition. Based on your answers, the program will either return the card back to the deck or remove it completely. The program will keep track of your performance so that on future sessions, vocabulary you didn’t recognize can be shown again.

Obviously the bigger range of lessons you choose, the more vocabulary there will be to test for. If you decide to go from lesson 1 to the latest lesson, there will be more than 1000 questions! I recommend you choose shorter ranges initially. While you are welcome to go through it at your own pace, I recommend using it once a day so your brain has time to remember what is being taught.

One other feature that has been added to the Memorization mode is an export feature. After choosing your mode and lesson range, you can select the export option which will generate a text file featuring the select content in tab delimited format. Note that this feature seems to work on some browsers and not others. In some cases, a window may popup with the data, whereas in others, a download link is displayed above the flashcard window.

I suspect there may be some glitches with this program. Please send me all your comments so the program can be improved.

Update: Thanks to your feedback, there have been a few improvements, including audio playback of answers, the ability to modify your current testing range and an increase in font size of the question. If you have any other suggestions on how to improve it, do continue to let me know.

Addressing People

Addressing People

While we’ve talked about names in Chinese before, it is important to know how to address people using the proper titles. While Westerners can generally be forgiving for not knowing the local customs, those that are able to follow the proper conventions correctly can receive a big edge when developing relationships.

Unlike English, the Chinese equivalents to “Mr” and “Mrs” – xiānshēng and tàitai follow the person’s last name. These two terms can also be used to refer to one’s husband and wife respectively. In Southern parts of China and Taiwan, these terms can also be used to address service people such as waiters, clerks and taxi drivers. In Northern parts of China, the term shīfu meaning “specialist” is used instead.

Where possible, it is advisable to find the person’s position and use it instead. Addressing someone as Wáng lǎoshī for “Teacher Wang” or Lǐ jīnglǐ for “Manager Li” shows them a lot more respect than a standard “Mr” or “Mrs.” It is also common practice to refer to someone with a definite position in the third person, using just their title and nothing else. If you’re shopping for goods, and are hoping for a good deal from the shop owner, referring to him as lǎobǎn for “boss” may gain you some favors.

Family relationship titles can be quite complicated. Traditionally, it was common for several generations of family members to live together, which meant it was important to accurately address each other. Family members are addressed differently based on whether they are older or younger than you, as well as whether the relationship is a paternal or maternal one. Close friends can also address each other as if they were in the same family. So a friend might refer to another friend as his older brother. This can also extend to a close friend’s family – where you address his relatives as if they were your own. This is similar to Western culture where a couple might affectionately be called Auntie and Uncle by younger generations.

Nicknames are also quite popular in Chinese culture. Two brothers surnamed Chén might be identified among friends as Lǎo Chén and Xiǎo Chén to indicate “younger Chen” and “older Chen” respectively. While in Western culture, it may be considered rude to directly refer to someone as old, in Chinese culture it is considered a sign of respect and refers more to the person’s wisdom and maturity than to their specific age.

While these rules about relationships may seem confusing on the outside, the best way to prepare yourself from uneasy situations is to observe others in action, and see what terms they use to address each other. To ensure that you use the right titles, it is also advisable to ask the opinions of others to make sure that you use the appropriate term.

Initial Chinese Interactions

Making Chinese Friends

One of the reasons many Westerners come to Asia, is their inherent curiosity in seeing Chinese people living and working in their native environment. Thankfully, this curiosity is also reciprocated with Chinese people being quite enthusiastic and friendly towards foreigners in general. The interest from locals is easily recognized by the stares you may get for being “foreign.” The farther away from big cities you go, the more attention you tend to get for being foreign.

Unless you happen to run into an outgoing type, the extent of your contact with most locals might be limited to stares. Knowing that there will be a communication gap is enough to keep most people from approaching you, so if you are interested in starting a conversation, being able to blurt out a few words in Chinese is very useful to break the ice and initiate contact.

Those of you who can speak some Chinese, may at times be disheartened to hear people reply to you in English, even when you address them in Chinese. While your initial reaction might be to construe this as a sign that your Chinese isn’t good enough, realize that just as you are using every opportunity you can find to practice what Chinese you know, they are using the same opportunity to practice their English. In general though, unless the situation is quite casual, it is best to stick to the language that allows the conversation to flow the smoothest.

If you do happen to enter a tough crowd, it is helpful to cite some common ground or a common acquaintance to elevate you from “stranger” status. Handshakes are accepted forms of greeting. You may also notice a slight bow of the head when greeting others. Where possible, try and carry business cards with you. When handing out a business card, use both hands to grasp the corners of the card and hand it so that the face can be read as it is being received. Depending on the nature of your business, it may be wise to have a bilingual version of your business card with the Chinese version on one side and the English version on the other.

During the initial small talk, apart from the obligatory “where do you come from?” you are likely to get questions regarding your experiences and impressions of China. This is because most locals within China tend to know very little about the world outside their borders (a phenomenon common in most countries), so their questioning tends to look for common ground with you, which is usually based within China. Because of this, their interest in you tends to be more as a result of your being “foreign” than because of your specific nationality.

During this interaction, it isn’t uncommon to be asked questions that you might deem to be quite personal, such as your age, marital status or even salary! If you choose not to answer these questions, be sure to do so in a way that doesn’t embarrass the person doing the asking. You can use the question topics brought up as a guideline for what questions you are allowed to ask in return. In general, the only major topic that should be avoided is politics, as that tends to be a sensitive issue for many. If you receive praise of any form, it is best to display outright modesty. This same phenomenon can be observed in their response, when you pay a compliment.

The safest way to manage these initial interactions is to spend a lot of time observing what others do, and how others respond. Notice their body language and try to mimic them when appropriate. While as a foreigner, you can be forgiven in most cases for not following traditional Chinese protocol, what efforts you do make to follow local customs can take you a long way towards developing proper contacts and relationships.

Confucian Culture

Confucian Culture

It is true that China is a much different place than it was a few decades ago. Advancements in communication and infrastructure have drawn China a lot closer to the Western world today, than in the past. As a result, one would expect Chinese people today to be a lot more tolerant towards Western attitudes and ideals, than they might have been in the past. While this is true, there are still patterns in daily Chinese behavior that can be traced back to centuries of ideology, that still form a significant basis in Chinese culture today. Understanding these ideals and perspective can go a long way towards improving your interactions with Chinese people.

Unlike in the West, where there is more of an emphasis towards individuality and creativity in expressing one’s self, in Chinese society there tends to be more emphasis towards conforming to society’s norms and traditions. These behaviors can be traced back to the days of Confucius, whose teachings and philosophy on social behavior have been compiled into written records, that have greatly influenced thought, even in modern times. As a result, since everyone is educated in his teachings which is used in society, there is a general pattern of what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable behavior when dealing with people.

This is why when traveling and meeting Chinese, you are rarely given choices as a guest. When eating out at a dinner in your honor, expect to see course after course being served on your plate without any regard for what your taste preference might be. Rather than you being treated as an individual, there is more reverence towards your position, which in this case is the guest. Similarly, expect to see designated seating around the table for the persons of most importance, based on their titles and positions within the gathering.

When you have the opportunity, it is worth noting some of the behaviors and habits that follow this philosophy. Introducing people to each other is key, since they form the start of relationships. If you lack a third party introduction, it is helpful to mention a common third party to elevate you from stranger status. Similarly, the questions asked of you during an initial conversation are usually used to form common ground between you. Unlike in Western culture, where people may become on first name basis after an initial meeting, in Chinese, a person’s title is almost always used, based on their relation to you.

In future blog postings, expect to see more examples of such cultural patterns, to better educate you with Chinese society. Being able to recognize and even reproduce this behavior on your own, can take you a long way towards not only forming the relationships you’ll need to make with Chinese people, but also to better equip you to understand why they do the things they do, in order to avoid potential mix ups.

Relationships and Face

Forming relationships is a key to Chinese business culture

When doing business in China, there are a couple of concepts worth noting that are extremely prevalent in Chinese culture. The first is guānxi, which is the art of building relationships. You will find after initially establishing contacts with people, that they will often go out of their way to help and provide you with whatever assistance you may need. This assistance forms a bond between people, which forms the basis for future relationships. Later, when ready to do business, it is common to use the network of relationships created from this process to begin.

These relationships are meant to be of mutual benefit and are useful for generating new business and clients, or as a source of knowledge and expertise. Examples may include one person getting another a job at his company, or a principal allowing someone’s child entrance into a prestigious school. While this concept may seem obvious and isn’t unique to Chinese culture, it’s certainly more prevalent in Chinese society and has ingrained itself as part of daily life. Indeed the expression méi guānxi, which is used to say “That’s okay” in response to an apology, is one of the most common phrases you might hear. The literal meaning can be thought of as meaning “this doesn’t affect our relationship.”

Closely related to guānxi is miànzi which is the concept of “face.” Many business relationships begin by doing personal favors for each other. The person doing the favor gains face or status in the process, while the recipient has an implied obligation to return the favor at some point. Meeting these obligations allows you to build up your network of relationships by gaining face. Choosing not to help when given the opportunity to do so, creates the opposite effect, resulting in your losing face, which should be avoided at all costs.

While it is important to do your best to accumulate as much face and the resulting prestige accorded with it as you can, it is equally important not to put others in positions where they are forced to lose face. Examples of such include trying to embarrass others in public, or putting people in positions where they have no solutions. In such situations, it is best to give the other party a “face saving option” which in turn builds your character for having accorded them that respect. For example, choosing not to accept a dinner invitation should be accompanied with a suitable excuse (along with the requisite apology) that shows your interest in the other party, allowing them to keep face.

Knowledge of these concepts is important not only in business, but also in daily life in China. Unlike the West, where you might make a public scene to get what you want, doing so in China will ostracize you, resulting in the opposite effect. While the Chinese are increasingly more tolerant of Western mannerisms and traditions, respect of local etiquette is a great way to stand out from the crowd, by showing your willingness to do things their way.

General Updates

While it may seem on the outside that we’re on a break, there has been a lot of behind the scenes work going on. Here are some updates on different sections of the site:

  1. Exercises page – A new batch of questions has been added, bringing the current total to about 30 or so. Eventually, depending on user response, we could have a question there for most lessons. The idea here would be to get you using what you learn in each lesson by having to answer an open ended question on the subject for that lesson. By keeping the questions open ended, we are encouraging you to find and use vocabulary related to your personal life. So if we asked what your job is, you would need to know how to say your particular profession in Chinese. This page has recently been enhanced to allow “conversations” with the teacher, so if you needed extra vocabulary, you could ask for help and the teacher could guide you through your answer. Each time an answer is posted, you will be notified via email. Links have also been added to the lessons that each question was taken from. Thanks to those who have used this feature and provided feedback so far. Update: I have noticed some users submitting answers in numbered Pinyin. I have since updated the interface to convert numbered pinyin into tone marks. This should hopefully improve the usability.  Update 2: Another batch of exercises has been added, bringing the total to about 70 questions now.
  2. PDFs for levels 1 and 2 are currently up to date. Level 3 will take longer as each lesson has 6 to 7 PDFs associated with it. My target is to have PDFs for all lessons available by the end of the year. Update: PDFs are now current for level 3 as well.
  3. Videos for level 3 were recently added, so almost every dialogue in the course should now have a video associated with it.
  4. Sentence builder questions have been added for most lessons in level 1 and are currently being added to lessons in level 2 onwards. Update: Sentence builder exercises are now available for every lesson in the course.

We hope to be able to use all these tools to improve the approach used at CLO. When we first began this course, new vocabulary was first introduced and then later reused in future lessons. However, with our word bank currently sitting at over 2000 items, it isn’t practical to solely use future dialogues and lessons as review practice. So the new approach is to continue to use new lessons to introduce new vocabulary. Users can then study the examples used in the lesson in the vocabulary page while practicing their pronunciation. The sentence builder program can then be used to play with the words in other contexts. The podcast review will then reinforce this vocabulary further in more contexts. Finally, the exercise page can be used to test the user’s own understanding by forming responses using this new vocabulary. Later, the flashcard program can be used to test the user’s retention of vocabulary from older lessons.

It is hoped that this process will greatly aid in retention of new vocabulary. Where it’s forgotten, the word bank can hopefully aid in quickly accessing old material. All these tools have been added based directly on user feedback, so keep your comments and emails coming in. Let me know how exactly YOU use these tools and what can be done to improve your learning experince.

Shortcuts to Reading Chinese

Shortcuts to Reading Chinese

Most learners of Chinese try to take shortcuts and I was no exception. Learning to read and write Chinese seemed impossible for me to do in a short time, so at first I didn’t bother. When I eventually did decide to tackle this area, I decided to focus on reading rather than writing. It was one thing for me to be able to recognize a complex character at a glance, but it was another thing for me to actually be able to reproduce it on paper with all its minute nuances. I later found that when learning to read Chinese, there are other shortcuts that I could take to make the learning process seem much quicker than it actually was.

In English, it is possible for learners to read a paragraph of text out aloud without having any clue as to what they are reading. For new words, whose pronunciation isn’t known, it is still possible to try and come up with an approximation of what the word should sound like by phonetically sounding it out, which is usually enough for a native English to understand. In Chinese, this process is of course a lot trickier, since you frequently come across characters that are completely unrecognizable, with no phonetic clues to help you out. Whenever I was at this point, I was usually stumped. No amount of prodding or encouragement from a teacher was going to help me since there were no clues at all on how to proceed.

Well the truth is, there were clues, but they were just in different places. Most words in Chinese are formed from two or more characters, so usually when reading, knowing what one of the characters is, is enough to give you a clue as to what the word is or might be. For example, when looking at a menu, I would look for key characters. 肉 was a good one since by studying the characters around it, I was able to figure out what kind of meat was in the dish. I’d recognize 羊肉 as lamb since the 羊 resembled the horns on a sheep. Beef also featured similar characters. I found that by setting the context this way, I was much further ahead than having to sheepishly stare (pun intended) at the menu with no clue as to where to look. Similarly, I was able to spot 茶, so I knew I was dealing with tea. I also knew that 红 meant “red.” So with that, I knew that I was dealing with a type of red tea. At the end of the day, it was much easier to ask the waiter “what kind of red tea is this?” than to simply ask “what’s on this menu?”

Once you get your brain used to looking for clues in this way, you will find your brain automatically scanning texts for characters you know and figuring out the rest from context. I found myself being able to write tests in Chinese despite not being able to recognize many of the characters on the test paper. Here was a typical scenario:

I would see the following sentence: 冬天很冷,可是夏天很热。 At first glance, the only characters I could pick out were …tiān hěn …, kěshì … tiān hěn … My typical thought process was as follows:

“Hmm, I see two 天s there so we might be talking about days. Jīntian? Míngtiān? Zuótiān? No, I know those ones so it can’t be days, so it must be seasons! There are two seasons there – “one is very… but the other is very…” The 冬 character there looks similar to 多. Duōtiān? That sounds similar to dōngtiān – winter?!? If that’s winter, then perhaps 夏天 is summer. So perhaps we are talking about winter and summer. So winter is very… but summer is very… hot and cold?? I remember the character for hot looks a little like boiling water so that must be 热 which would make 冷 cold. I choose answer B: Winter is cold, but summer is hot. As long as the teacher wasn’t deliberately trying to trick you, it was usually possible to determine the right answer this way.

This technique actually works quite well in Chinese because many vocabulary items tend to be grouped neatly. For example all the seasons end in 天, all transportation on land ends in 车, all meat ends in 肉 and so on. You don’t even have to be perfect with it. For example if you looked at the characters for 年,车 and 牛 individually, it would be very easy to confuse them. But that usually isn’t a problem since the characters are usually shown within some context. I would know that 牛肉 was beef since I was unlikely to see the 牛 mixed up with cars or dates.

Obviously the more characters you are able to recognize, the more accurate this technique becomes. Depending on how you look at it, the result of this and some of the listening techniques I’ve talked about previously is that you can either seem a lot smarter than you really are, or that you can learn a lot quicker than you originally thought.

The Truth About Spoken Chinese

Most Mandarin is learned in class

Most people regard “Chinese” as being a single language, as did I while growing up in Canada. My first interest in learning Chinese began about 10 years ago as a result of my having many Chinese associates.

I was very curious about the language they used to speak to each other, so I picked up my first Chinese textbook and tried to practice what I was learning with them. I soon found out that what I was studying and what they were speaking were two different languages.

That was when I learned that the Chinese you hear out West can usually be classified into either Cantonese or Mandarin. At the time, the vast majority of what “Chinese speakers” spoke outside of China was Cantonese. This confused me as I now had to decide whether to learn the official language of China or learn what people on the street were actually speaking.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I first landed in Taiwan and began to seriously learn Chinese. Surely, living in a Chinese speaking country and constantly hearing what I was studying would greatly speed up the learning the process?

I made a new discovery.

While people could understand what I was saying and I could understand them when they were speaking to me, I couldn’t understand them when they were speaking to each other! (Deja vu!)

After more research, I learned that what most people in China learn and speak at home isn’t Mandarin! Every province or region has its own “dialect” that people use to speak to each other, that are as different as English and French or Italian and German. In total there are about 50 distinct dialects across China and overseas Chinese communities, not counting regional variations between them.

This leads to an interesting situation for foreigners learning Chinese and wanting to communicate with Chinese people. A great analogy I heard is to imagine yourself walking into a party dressed up while everyone else is dressed casually. You might hear “Wow, you look great!” or “Nice outfit!” and while it feels great to be complimented, you can’t help feeling left out for being the only “non casual person.”

The prospects aren’t gloomy though. All media is broadcast in Mandarin as that is the official form. Similarly, for business transactions or formal occasions, you can expect Mandarin to be used. It is also the language used when traveling or when strangers meet, so it is definitely the language to learn. The only time local dialects are used is when locals speak with other locals from the same region.

For most learners, I would recommend keeping your focus on the big picture (Mandarin), although you can win yourself some points by learning a few key phrases in the local dialect to show respect.

Exercises Page

As announced in the last post, the exercises page is now ready and has been added to the Premium menu. The Pong Audio forum has subsequently been removed from the Community page.

I expect this feature will take some getting used to, since the idea is to get you from passively studying to actively studying by actually submitting your own input. The questions given for you to answer have purposely been given as audio only. If you’re not sure what a question means, write a text message saying which part you didn’t understand and a teacher will gladly reply.

Each question is a separate entity as we don’t expect you to be able to answer all the questions (not initially anyway). For each question you do answer, the teacher’s feedback will appear below the question after she has had a chance to review your answer. Don’t forget as well that you can answer by recording your voice using the tools on the left side of the page, or by submitting your answer as text (pinyin, simplified, traditional or english if you need more help).

Like the other features on the site, the more you use it and the more input you give me, the more I can improve it, so keep the feedback coming!

Pong Replacement

I’m proud to announce the latest feature to CLO that will soon be replacing the Pong Audio forum. The original premise of Pong was to ask some open ended questions that users could record answers to and submit. Judging from feedback, these were the reasons I found why people weren’t using Pong:

1. System requirements were high – it required a specific version of Java to be installed on your computer, which wouldn’t run on many computers. Also, not everyone had a microphone attached to their computer. Some of those that did had to manually adjust their microphone settings. This was too much to expect the average user to do.
2. Usability wasn’t good – accounts had to manually be entered by the admin, so it wasn’t friendly enough to get right into. As well, there were complaints that the quality of recordings was low.
3. It was public – since most users are still beginning to learn Chinese, they weren’t ready to broadcast their potentially flawed pronunciation to the world.

4. No feedback – there was no way for the user to know whether the answers they submitted were correct.

Solution: I still believe there is merit in a system of this sorts, so I had a new version of this application created in house that attempted to solve the issues noted above. So without further adieu, I’m proud to present (drum roll please…) the new Exercises page!

The premise here is similar. Questions will be asked in audio format. There will be no audio clues however, so you will be forced to use your listening skills. There are references to the lesson that each question is taken from however. To begin with, there are a list of 16 questions – one from each 10 lessons. Go through and see which ones you can figure out. You can then choose whether to respond or not.

Your response can either be in audio format – grab your microphone if you have one and record your answer – or you can type out your answer in any format if you so choose. Then click submit. Your answer will then be sent to a CLO teacher who will then send you feedback. Once the feedback has been sent, your page will be updated with teacher feedback for each of the questions you answered.

Unlike Pong, your answers will not be made public, so don’t be shy! We also encourage creativity in your answers!

This application is still in beta, so I expect there may be some bugs initially. Please send me your feedback on what you like, as well as what we can change to improve the experience further. Enjoy!

UPDATE: It turns out that the audio recordings aren’t working. I’m on it to get that fixed. In the meantime you can still send in text answers. Thanks to those who submitted answers and sent me feedback. Some of your suggestions have already been implemented.  UPDATE: Everything is now working smoothly.  Please continue to send me your feedback.

Overlapping Meanings

Overlapping meanings

This post could act as a counter to the “Is Chinese Really That Hard?” post. One aspect of Chinese that it took me some time to grasp was that meanings in Chinese and English don’t always exhibit a one to one relationship. In the beginning, each time I came across a new word in Chinese, I would look for the English equivalent. That worked fine for common nouns – boy, girl, China, America, but then I started to discover that some words had overlapping meanings between Chinese and English.

Many words have multiple meanings. I learned early on that yīnggāi means “should.” Simple enough I thought, until one day when someone looked at me and said Nǐ yīnggāi shēngbìng le. “You should be sick”? I thought. Why should I be sick?? That’s when I learned that it also has a meaning of “must” as in “You must be sick.” Ok, easy to fathom – it has multiple meanings, just like many words in English.

I then came across words that describe different levels of intensity than their equivalent English counterparts. One of the first words I learned – hěn was taught to me as meaning “very” in English. So to answer Nǐ hǎo ma? you answer Wǒ hěn hǎo as in “I’m very good.” But what if I wasn’t very good? What if I only wanted to answer “I’m good”? Logically that should be Wǒ hǎo. But that was wrong. You had to have the hěn in there, since it actually is a less intensive “very” than its English counterpart. To really answer “I’m very good” you would say Wǒ fēicháng hǎo. Never mind that the dictionary describes fēicháng as meaning “extremely” since its actual intensity lies somewhere between “very” and “extremely” in English.

This creates an interesting situation where it’s possible to describe situations in different degrees in Chinese than in English. For example many teachers are described as being hěn xiōng. Yet if you look up that word in the dictionary you get a meaning of being “fierce” or “terrible.” Hardly words I would use to describe an ordinary teacher (although there undoubtedly are extreme examples who could fit that category). At first I assumed “strict” or “stern” might be a better definition but there are other words in Chinese to describe those terms, so at some point you have to give up on looking for an exact definition since there isn’t one.

For an exercise in futility, you can skim through words in a Chinese-English dictionary to look at all the extraneous definitions (great way to pass the time). Take a look at the variety of definitions for the following words:

Jiāo – to deliver / to turn over / to make friends / to intersect (lines) / to pay (money)
Dōu – both / all / even / already
Jiù – at once / then / only / to approach / to undertake / already
Dài – band / belt / ribbon / tire / area / zone / region / to wear / to carry / to lead / to look after / to raise
Sòng – to deliver / to carry / to present / to see off / to send

So what is the solution to this mess? Learn new characters within context. Don’t worry about extraneous meanings. Learn to use new words within the context you discovered them and master those current definitions before moving on to other usages. While the English meaning is great for getting your foot in the door, rely on examples in different contexts before being satisfied with a definition.

PDF Mania!

As announced in our October podcast update, we have now begun releasing PDF versions of all the notes on our site. This is a pretty time consuming process however, since in addition to there being 160 lessons worth of material, many of the pages have to be reformatted from the current “pop-up translations format” to one better suited for paper (this is especially time consuming for level 3 on, where most pages are available in 4 different formats). As new PDFs, are released they will be added to the Course Outline.

The release of PDFs allows us to create a new price plan for users who prefer to work away from their computer. They will now be able to subscribe to the podcasts and review podcasts as well as have access to all the PDFs that can be printed out and used offline. Once the PDFs for all current lessons are up to date, I can look into adding them to the Premium feed for future lessons.

UPDATE: The PDFs for Level 1 are now all available. You may have also noticed transcripts in Spanish available for the first few lessons. As time permits, we will be adding more of these for later lessons.

Is Chinese Really That Hard?

Does learning Chinese leave you frustrated?

Many people regard Chinese as being one of the toughest languages to learn. That in itself might be reason enough to learn it, since many like the challenge that comes with it and relish the looks of amazement that passers by give when they hear that you can speak Chinese! In my personal experience however, I found that many of the reasons given for Chinese being so hard weren’t actually that hard when broken down. This meant that I was learning a language that others thought was very hard, when actually that wasn’t necessarily the case (much better than learning something that others think is easy but actually isn’t!) Here are some of the main obstacles that people encounter when trying to learn Chinese, and my personal solutions to overcoming then.

The Tones
This is the initial challenge that most beginners face. How can mài mean “to sell” while mǎi mean “to buy”? So now, not only do you have to remember that shuì jiào means “sleep”, you better remember that there are two fourth tones there or you risk talking about “dumplings” instead of “sleep.” Surely having to memorize the extra tone element on top of each new vocabulary word would drive any learner crazy?

My solution: This issue here is usually enough to weed out most beginners, which is great for the rest of us (less people to share the stage with!). The trick here is that this is only a problem in the beginning. The more you expose yourself to the language, the more your brain will automatically fuse this element into your language learning until you get to the point where you unconsciously start recognizing the tones for new vocabulary. Compare these two scenarios:

Student: How do you say “United Nations” in Chinese?
Teacher: Lián hé guó
Student: “Lian he guo”, ok. And what tones does that use?
Teacher: Three second tones.
Student: Got it, thanks!

Student: How do you say “United Nations” in Chinese?
Teacher: Lián hé guó
Student: Lián hé guó. Got it, thanks!

In the second scenario the student has automatically learned to associate tones with new vocabulary. If you were to ask him what the tones were, he would have to repeat the words in his mind first and pull the tones out from there, since the tones and the words are already associated together.

A great exercise to get to this level is mindless repetition of sentences from native speakers, so that you start to develop the ebb and flow of the language by yourself. As you listen to the podcasts in this course, use the pauses provided to repeat after the speaker, even with vocabulary you are already familiar with to get yourself in this mode.

The Writing System
This is of course a challenge for many, including native speakers themselves. One of the reasons given for the slowness in progression of Chinese learners is that because reading and writing takes so long to learn, we learners lose out from the experience of learning from reading. In English, if we come across a word we don’t understand we can easily write it down and look it up later. How do we do that in Chinese when you come across a word you don’t know that uses characters that are equally unfamiliar? How do Chinese speakers look up unfamiliar characters in a dictionary?

My solution:There are a couple of separate issues here. If it’s just learning new vocabulary and language usage from reading you are looking for, there are plenty of pinyin resources out there, including on this website. Similarly, if you come across a new word in your learning, it’s easy enough to write it down in pinyin and look it up in a pinyin dictionary. Learning characters of course is another story, and one that has been touched upon in other categories.

Grammar: This is an aspect of Chinese that is often neglected because it actually is much simpler than in other languages. The extra time put in learning to read and write is offset by the time you don’t have to put in learning conjugations of verbs, tenses and other issues present in other languages. This can be a problem in itself since the lack of grammar rules makes Chinese very context sensitive. Sentences can have multiple meanings that may seem to contradict each other with only subtle clues to distinguish between them.

My solution: The answer here is the same as the answer for tones. Fortunately (or unfortunately for some), it’s not something you consciously study or memorize to understand. You learn by getting the feel for the language from experience. Listen to enough podcasts, and get yourself experienced with enough dialogues and you’ll slowly start to gather a “feel” for the language. You’ll find yourself instinctively responding with the right expressions without even knowing how or why.

The road to fluency: When learning any language, you will find some aspects easier than others. This is a result of usage patterns. In my daily life, I find myself listening to a lot more Chinese than I speak. As a result my listening skills are greater than my speaking skills. Similarly my reading skills are more advanced than my writing skills. The nice thing about all of this though is that my fluency matches my level of requirement. My listening skills are greater because I have to do a lot more listening than speaking in my daily life. Similarly I rarely have to physically write anything in my daily routine (especially in this age of computers), whereas reading is more useful for me, so the latter skill is more developed.

There’s no rule that says all skills have to be equal. Focus on the areas of importance for you and improve those areas first. Learning any language (or any skill for that matter) is only as hard as you make it out to be. Take advantage of the many tools available in this course and on the web to focus on your areas of weakness. Then gloat that you are able to do what so many others have failed or given up on doing. Jiāyóu!

Updated Course Outlines

The Course Outline for levels 1 and 2 have been updated to include Chinese character support.  Logged in users can use switch between Pinyin, Simplified, Traditional and English modes to view the vocabulary.  Non logged in users can sample this functionality for the first four lessons.  Enjoy!

Course Schedule

The course schedule has been tentatively updated with the rest of the lessons in level 3 along with the start of level 4. I have added some breaks to enable level 3 to finish at the end of the year, so we can begin 2008 with level 4.

So what can you expect in level 4? I expect that we should be able to do more all Chinese lessons then, like we recently did in lesson 154. Certainly by level 5, I expect this to be a predominantly Chinese podcast.

There will also be some refocus over the next few weeks with the Premium content. The Sentence builder will be extended to more lessons. PDF notes should also soon become a reality (there has been a massive editing campaign of older lessons, which is why they have been delayed till now). There are also some other exciting new additions that I hope to announce to the Premium side soon so stay tuned!

Chinese Handwriting

Traditional Characters Handwriting

Like most of you, when I first began learning Chinese, I was very fascinated with the thousands of Chinese characters out there and the methods that people used to learn them. As I began to learn them myself, I began to wonder how people were able to write so fast if there were characters that required so many strokes. Surely if there was a contest between someone writing a paragraph in English and someone writing the equivalent paragraph in Chinese, the former would easily win! However, upon closer examination, two things became evident. Firstly, the equivalent Chinese paragraph would be shorter (in terms of characters required) than its English counterpart. As well, just like in English, Chinese writers use their own form of short hand to greatly speed up their writing.

As you will see in the following examples, when handwriting in Chinese, strokes tend to be slurred. While to the untrained eye the end result for some characters may not look like the characters they are supposed to represent, native speakers can easily make them out. Compare the following with their typed equivalents.

Traditional Characters Handwriting


Traditional Characters Handwriting


Traditional Characters Handwriting


Traditional Characters Handwriting


Simplified versus Traditional

Inspiration for the character for 'electricity'

In the 1950s, to increase the literacy rate among its citizens, the government in mainland China began to develop a system of simplifying the thousands of Chinese characters, by decreasing the number of pen strokes required to write them. This resulted in the formation of two systems of Chinese characters – the traditional system (still used in Taiwan, parts of Hong Kong and many overseas communities) and the simplified system (used in mainland China and Singapore). As a student, you can choose which system to focus on, as our course supports both formats.

By choosing to learn the simplified version, you are shortening the amount of characters you need to learn, since many similar sounding characters have been replaced with a single one (for example while you have the characters 隻, 祇 and 只 in traditional, all three are combined into 只 in the simplified form). The characters you do have to learn also become a lot simpler, for example 嗎 becomes 吗 and 麼 becomes 么. The proponents for traditional form emphasize the beauty and tradition in the characters, many of which were developed in the fifth century. By learning the history behind characters, you also learn more about the culture and rationale behind the language.

In many cases, the simplified version of a character removes components from the original traditional character, thereby reducing the number of strokes required to write it. The traditional character for electricity for example 電 is made up of two components – rain, followed by lightning striking a field at the bottom (as depicted in the picture above). The simplified version 电 removes the rain component. Similarly, the traditional character to listen (聽) is a combination of “ear” (耳) and “goodness” (德). The simplified version however is reduced to 听, focusing more on the sound component than the origins of the character.

The debate then becomes whether it is easier to remember the smaller number of strokes of the simplified characters, or the meanings behind the components in many of the traditional characters. Other factors to consider include that most “writing” these days is done by typing out characters, in which case stroke count becomes meaningless. In the end, it comes down to where you are and how you plan to use your Chinese. Since literature written before the 1950s was all done in traditional characters, there will always be a need for scholars to learn the traditional system. However for learners predominantly in mainland China, focusing on current material, simplified may be the way to go.

Mid Autumn Moon Festival

Mid Autumn Moon Festival

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (zhōngqiūjié), or simply the Moon Festival, is celebrated in many countries throughout Asia, although it it originated some 3000 years ago in China. This festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese lunar calendar. Just as Westerners may wish for a “white Christmas”, Chinese wish for a clear sky on this day to observe the full moon in all its glory.

After Chinese New Year, the Moon Festival is the next important holiday in the Chinese lunar calendar. It is a legal holiday and is used to celebrate abundance and an end to the harvest season before winter kicks in, similar to why North Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day. However, instead of eating turkey, traditional foods include moon cakes, which come in wide varieties, and the pomelo fruit. Traditions include lighting lanterns and having barbecues under the moonlight, topped off with fireworks to celebrate the occasion.

The story behind the celebration of the Moon Festival is similar to that of Chinese Valentine’s Day. Once upon a time there were ten suns in the sky which began to scorch the earth, causing misery among the people. Houyi, the archer, solved the problem by shooting the suns down one by one, leaving just one. He was rewarded by becoming the king and marrying the beautiful Chang’e, as well as receiving a pill that granted immortality among the Gods. However, knowing that swallowing the pill would cause him to leave earth and go to the sky, he gave it to Chang’e to save for the future. One day, Chang’e was attacked by their servant who knew about the pill and wanted it for himself. Knowing that she had no other choice, Chang’e swallowed the pill herself, causing her to ascend into the sky and to the moon. Houyi tried to chase her, but in vain. Since then, every year during the moon festival, when the moon was at is brightest, Houyi would celebrate the memory of his love by lighting incense and eating the fruits and desserts that she loved to eat, which is how citizens today also celebrate the occasion.

Levels of Fluency

Levels of Fluency

I’ve always had a problem answering the question “Can you speak Chinese?” What exactly does the speaker mean by that question? Do you need to be fluent in the language to answer that question affirmatively? And if so, what level do you need to reach to attain “fluency”? To complicate things further, one’s listening / speaking skills might be a lot more developed than their reading / writing skills, so how do you factor that into the picture?

You will find that as you learn a new language, there are certain levels of fluency that you come across. The hardest part is crossing from one level to another, as this is a jump that many don’t make. The reasons for this vary from person to person, but in general we tend to get relaxed in our comfort zone. In the early stages, you learn enough to survive where you are. To get to the next level requires extra effort on your part which may affect your daily routine. Most would rather stay in their comfort zone than expend this extra effort.

I have noticed this resistance by analyzing feedback and statistics for the users of my course as we cross from one level to another. It would be a much more pleasant experience for basic listeners, for me to continue teaching the course in the format used in earlier lessons where a dialog is presented in Chinese, then explained completely in English. However, by adding Chinese to the explanations in later lessons, I am forcing the listener to consult the translations and word bank where necessary, which of course requires extra effort on their part.

During my recent experience working with individuals of this course, I also found it interesting that different users used different standards to decide when to progress to later lessons. Some students wouldn’t continue unless they understood 90% plus of the material and vocabulary used in a lesson. Others were more lenient and would continue on despite much less retention. Of course there is also the question of what exactly you are trying to learn. For some, having proper pronunciation was most important. Others were more interested in vocabulary or grammar usage. Some might have mastered these skills and were now going through earlier lessons to shore up their reading skills.

I think it would be quite an accomplishment for a user to actually start the CLO course from the first lesson and be able to progress at their own pace all the way to the most recent lessons. Hopefully the tools we have added and will continue to add along the way will help users accomplish the individual goals and targets they have set for themselves. If there are certain hints or strategies that have worked well for you, please share them with the rest of us.

Flashcard Rebuilt!

I’m happy to say that the Flashcard program should now be completely up to date!  It’s been rebuilt internally to allow us to update it more frequently from here on.  If you notice any glitches, please let me know.

Thanks for your patience!

Chinese Dialects

Chinese People Talking

One of the lessons I found out early on during my initial stint in Taiwan was that there was more than one form of Chinese, in fact a LOT more! I found it odd that when people spoke to me, I could make out what they were saying, and they seemed to understand what I was saying to them. However, when I tried to eavesdrop on people talking to each other, more times than not, I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying!

We all know that Mandarin is the official language for China and Taiwan. However, each region within these places has their own unique dialect that can differ greatly from typical Mandarin. In Taiwan for example, most residents speak Minnanhua (also knows as Taiwanese) which is similar to the dialects spoken in the Fujian province of China. In fact, most regions in China have their own hua or local dialect. So when local residents speak to each other, that is usually the language they will use. It is what is used at home among family members as well.

Many generations ago, the Mandarins of Imperial China came up with an official language to unify the country and allow people from different regions to be able to communicate with each other. This is why Mandarin is called Putonghua (the common language) in Mainland China and Guoyu (the country language) in Taiwan. It is the language used to teach in school, on the news and to conduct business in (which makes it a good language to learn!)

Because for most people, Mandarin is formerly taught to them in school, it is also a sign of good education if you can speak proper Mandarin. So don’t be surprised if someone compliments your Chinese by saying “It’s very standard!” If you want to really fit in with the locals, learn a few words of the local dialect. If you think being able to speak a few words of Mandarin will impress them, imagine if you spoke a few words of the local language – that will be sure to floor them, as they know there are no books on the subject – the only way to learn it is to pick it up off the street, just like they had to.

As this course has shown, there are differences between pronunciation patterns from different regions in China. Learning about these dialects helped me better appreciate the differences in speech between different speakers. Just like it’s possible to identify where a person comes from by their English accent, it is also possible to do so by listening to a person’s Chinese.

Sentence Builder

A new feature will be added to past and future lessons over the next little while.  It will help you gain practice constructing sentences by getting you to put words into the right order.  The feature supports all four modes – Pinyin, Simplified, Traditional and English so find the mode that best suits you and see what you can make of it.

You can see a sample of what it looks like in the Vocabulary section of lesson 121 here.  If you have any suggestions on how to improve this feature, or other features that you think will help in the learning process, please let me know.

Flashcard Rebuild

The flashcard program is being rebuilt and will take about a week to be completely up to date as the lessons have to manually be reentered. During this time, some lessons and features may not show up properly.  While there should be no change to the end user, the new version will allow us to update new lessons much more frequently. Please bear with us during this rebuilding process.

Chinese Tea Culture

Chinese Tea Culture

While many may know that tea is popular in Chinese culture, many may not know how important and how integral it is as part of daily life. Tea is offered by the host to his guests as a sign of respect towards them. When visiting someone’s house, expect to be served tea when you are first seated. Going to a business meeting? Expect to be served tea before and during the meeting. Getting a haircut? It’s not uncommon for tea to be offered to you there as well. Tea ceremonies are also an integral part of Chinese weddings, where the new bride and groom offer tea to their parents and in-laws as a show of appreciation.

There are several different kinds of tea available, some more common than others, depending on the occasion. Green tea is a more natural form as it maintains the original color of the tea leaves. This flavor is found not only in tea but also in everything from chewing gum, medicines, cooking, soaps and even toothpaste! The green tea extract has many healthy properties, so it is common to extend these properties to other products of daily use.

Black tea (or red tea as it is known in Chinese) gets its color after fermentation of the tea leaves. Wulong tea is a cross between green and black tea, as a result of partial fermentation. Other types of tea include scented varieties such as jasmine tea, created by mixing flowers during the processing of tea leaves.

So why is tea so popular? In the summer, tea is known for dispelling heat and producing a cooling and relaxing sensation. Tea is also considered to have chemicals that aid in digestion, as well as removing nicotine and alcohol from the body. There is a fascinating process of how tea is served, involving constant pouring and repouring of hot water from the teapot to the teacups to provide the proper tea color and aroma. This process is especially used at tea shops, when customers are sampling different types of tea for purchase.

When served tea, it is best to follow the gestures that others around you use to show gratitude to the host, as these can vary from region to region. In general however, expect the host to make sure your tea cup is constantly refilled, so if you have had your fill, it is best to take a sip and let the rest sit in your cup.

Learning how to Read and Write Chinese Characters

First Writing Experience

Some may be scared off to learn that at one point there were as many as 50 000 different Chinese characters (by some estimates). Fortunately, this number has been whittled down to about 6500 for simplified computer fonts (double that for traditional fonts). That is still a big number for anyone to tackle, so the question becomes how many characters should a Chinese learner learn and how do you know which characters to learn?

The common standard to answer this question is to use a typical newspaper in Mainland China. Studies are regularly conducted to note which characters are most commonly used in printed media. To achieve 100% recognition of the characters used in a newspaper, you would need to know about 3000 characters (4000 for traditional characters in Taiwan). It is common to find dictionaries that only focus on these 3000 characters. So now that you know what the goal is, the question becomes how do you go about learning them? Do you just turn to page one of the dictionary and start learning a few characters per day? You could, but there is a much easier (and more efficient) way.

You only need to learn the 400 most commonly used characters to get to the level of 67% recognition. So it makes sense to study these 400 characters first, before moving on to the lesser used ones. Each time you see a character you know again, you are reinforcing that recognition pattern in your mind. Additionally, the process becomes easier, since in the process of learning, you will also be learning the radicals involved, so new characters will just involve modifying characters you already know, rather than having to learn them from scratch. Once you get to this magic 400 mark, you can then work on learning the next 600 characters, which will get you all the way to 88% recognition level.

As easy as this sounds, many study materials out there DON’T use this concept. A quick glance at a couple of textbooks teaching how to write characters showed one teaching the character for dragon (the 659th most common character), another teaching the character for fire (427th most common) and another teaching the character for busy (672nd most common). And this was the first lesson! It is easy to see why many students may give up learning how to read and write, when having to use methods like this.

Chinese Learn Online Universe on Netvibes

As the CLO site has expanded quite a bit to reflect several blogs now (5 at last count), it has become increasingly complicated for users to keep up with the latest postings on the different sites, plus the comments other users have left. To make it easier for you to benefit from the full CLO experience, we are proud to have teamed up with the website NetVibes to create the Learn Chinese Online Universe at

From this page you can see the latest updates from all 5 blogs plus their comment feeds as well. This is another feature brought to you as a direct result of user feedback so keep your comments and suggestions coming!

Chinese Valentine’s Day

Chinese Valentine's Day

Today is August 19, 2007 which also happens to be the 7th day of the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This day is dedicated to love and is the Chinese equivalent to Valentine’s day.

The legend behind this day dates back more than 2000 years and has been recounted by poets and in Chinese operas for generations since then. It resembles those found in Greek mythology, as it also goes on to explain some of the natural phenomena we encounter in our world.

The story begins with the seven fairy daughters of the Emperor of Heaven coming down to earth to bathe in a river one evening. An orphaned cowherd came across them and was memorized by the beauty of the youngest daughter, so he proceeded to steal her clothes that were lying on the riverside. The fairies finished their bath and flew back to heaven, leaving behind their youngest sister who had no clothes. The cowherd asked her to stay on earth and marry him, which she agreed to do.

They lived a happy life for several years, before the Queen demanded the return of her daughter back to Heaven. The cowherd chased after her into the sky. On seeing him, the Queen used a hairpin to create a line in the sky, separating the two. That line turned into the Milky Way. From then on, the two lived on different stars – Altair and Vega. Taking pity on them, the Queen allowed them to visit each other once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh moon.

Legend has it that on this day, magpies fly into the sky to create a bridge for the two to meet. Five color ropes are made by girls wanting to celebrate this occasion, and thrown on rooftops for the magpies to use. Additionally star gazing and praying for love and marriage at local temples is also popular on this day.

The traditions for this day contrast with those of Valentine’s Day (which is also celebrated as a Western custom in larger cities), which involve more gift giving between lovers.