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.

Best Strategy for Learning Chinese

Picking and choosing what to learn

So you have made the decision to learn Chinese. Excellent! Now what? What’s the best method to learn Chinese?

Obviously if you could just pack up your things and move to China, that might be a good start, but even that alone isn’t enough (as I found out the hard way). So what should you do when you get there? Or what can you do to prepare first?

Well, fortunately you have lots of choices (which may or may not be a good thing). Should you join a class? Find a one on one teacher? Look for a language exchange partner? Invest in books, CDs or other self study courses?

Well the truth is, no single method is good enough on its own (which is why this post is titled “best strategy” and not “best method”). You could invest in the Pimsleur series and master it completely. But even that will only get you familiar with a limited aspect of the language.

classroom approach might be great for some. However you may be shocked to find the outside world not following the rules and structure taught in class. So maybe “learning by doing” is the answer.

Forget about formal training and learn by making mistakes – get out there and learn what people are saying in the real world! Unfortunately that too doesn’t work for most personalities, plus this approach lacks the structure and system required to explain what it is the people out there are saying.

The solution then is a combination of all of the above.

For my first few years in Taiwan and up till now, all my Chinese was self taught using a combination of self study courses and books out there. I was able to pick and choose the areas I wanted to focus on, in a manner that worked best for me and my personality.

In the last month, I have enrolled in a university course, which is my first formal study of Chinese. This has opened my eyes to new methods of learning that I wasn’t exposed to previously.

While my listening and speaking skills are good for my level, my reading and writing skills are much lower than my classmates. This indicates to me that while this particular course I’m in is great at teaching reading and writing, it can improve in teaching listening and speaking.

You will see some of the ideas and concepts I have been experiencing added to the CLO course over the next little while. The idea is to provide a smorgasbord of learning methods, allowing listeners to choose which methods work best for them, and which areas they want to focus on.

Don’t feel compelled to have to use every new feature and tool being introduced. Imagine you are walking through the street scene pictured above. You don’t need to go to visit every shop to find what you need.

However, if enough resources are made available, there should be something for everyone, and you should be able to tailor make a strategy that meets your particular needs.

It’s been very rewarding for me to get to know you listeners as individuals, and what your own personal goals and strategies for learning Chinese are, and what techniques I can implement to help you out.

The CLO course looks very different today than what I envisioned a year ago when I first started. With your help, I expect it to look a lot different a year from now, so keep the feedback coming!

Vocabulary Section Update

The observant among you might notice that the Vocabulary section for all lessons has a slightly different look to it.  Gone are the old bulky playback buttons.  They have now been replaced with the sleeker playback buttons featured in the Word Bank.  Initial loading times for the page might be greater, but I believe the buffering system and overall performance should be better.  Over time, I will be adding extra related vocabulary to older lessons, so this should hopefully improve the overall experience for pages with a lot of audio entries.

Listening Skills


During my first year in Taiwan, with my Chinese skills at a bare minimum, I found it frustrating to constantly be in situations where I couldn’t understand what people were saying around me, or to me. That’s when I learned a neat trick to get myself more involved – guessing! I began to recognize patterns in what I was hearing around me, and began to build around that.

I first learned how to recognize subjects – “I”, “you”, “he / she” etc. I then learned how to recognize questions – “….ma?” along with the key question words “what”, “which”, “where”, “who” etc. After that, it just became a game of fill in the blanks. I might be in an elevator when someone asks “you… where…?” I would instantly reply “Jiānádà” (Canada). The gleam on their face told me that I had answered their question of where I was from correctly!

Later, as my vocabulary began to increase, I began to recognize key verbs. I would walk into a McDonalds and point at what I wanted to order. The cashier would then ask me a question (you want…?) . In the early stages, this was a pure guessing game. I would quickly rack my brain trying to think what questions I would get asked when ordering fast food in Canada. “What do you want to drink?” –

Got it! I would then point at the drink I wanted (this time it was me who had the gleam, as she poured the drink I wanted). Next question just before payment – “you want… or…?” I was already waiting for her to ask if I was planning to dine in or take out, so I quickly pointed at the ground to indicate wanting to dine in.

This was a great confidence booster for me to be able to function this way. Well, until I ran into a cashier one day who asked “you want…” followed by some new words I hadn’t heard before. My confident demeanor vanished in an instance. Was this a new way of asking if I wanted to eat in? I tried pointing at the ground, but could tell by her confused look that I wasn’t even close. (It turns out that she had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to upsize my fries and drink!)

I realized then that I had to increase my vocabulary to increase my guessing odds. But how could I forecast what questions and what new vocabulary someone was going to throw at me next time? I decided to play the odds again.

Over time, I began to pick out words that I would hear repeated in these different questions. I figured that if I heard a word being used repeatedly, that meant there was a greater chance it would be used again in the future, so it was in my interest to find out what it meant. After finding out that “hē” meant “to drink,” I was a lot more confident answering “you want drink what?” than answering “you want… what?”

This is the same concept used in the CLO course. Certain words get introduced in lessons and are never brought up again, so you are probably less likely to remember them. Other words get introduced, and then are later brought up again in future lessons.

Learning the more frequently used words first allows you to set the context to “guess” the meaning of the remaining words. You may notice this approach in the explanation portion of the lessons too. We first listen to a conversation without translating, then pick out the words we do know to help us figure out what’s remaining.

Developing this technique can be valuable in improving your listening skills.

How I Became a Yankees Fan

Wang Chien Ming

The two most popular sports in Taiwan are basketball and baseball. Every time a school bell rings signaling the start of lunch hour or end of classes, you will see a rush of kids to the basketball court to get in some practice time. Sales of basketball clothing and shoes modeled after top NBA players are hot sellers here. Baseball is also quite established with the local Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), featuring six teams, the winner of which goes on to play in the Asia Series competing against teams from Japan, South Korea and China.

One major difference between many Asian sporting leagues and their Western counterparts, is that in the former, teams are owned and named after corporations, rather than cities. While each team does have a regional market, home teams aren’t always played there. The current 6 teams in the CPBL are the Elephants, Whales, Bears, Cobras, Bulls and Lions. While interest in this league has had its highs and lows (due to a few game fixing scandals that emerged), interest in baseball as a whole has been reignited in the past few years, when the New York Yankees baseball team signed Taiwanese pitcher Chien Ming Wang to be one of their starters.

Since then, Wang hasn’t looked back, turning into one of the premier pitchers in the game. This has caused a huge fan base to develop in Taiwan, not only in Wang, but in the Yankees organization as a whole. Yankees games are televised live and repeated at other times of the day with Chinese commentating. How the Yankees fared in their last match is included as part of the sports wrap up in local news. When Wang is pitching, it isn’t uncommon to see the game on multiple channels as well as televised on big screens in public settings (for games that take place early morning Taiwan time). Wang’s achievements usually make the headlines in all newspapers, recording how he fared in the previous day’s game. Indeed, Wang has become an ambassador for the sport in Taiwan, and his trips back to the island draw a media circus. His image is used in advertising all over the place, selling everything from McDonald’s hamburgers to HP printers.

It can be expected that this kind of excitement shown towards trend setting athletes such as Wang in Taiwan, and Yao Ming in China will prompt scores of new kids to want to follow in the footsteps of their idols. I can’t imagine what the atmosphere here will be like years from now when there are multiple teams with multiple Asian stars leading them!

Level 3 Course Outline

You may have noticed a new addition to the Level 3 Course Outline.  Premium subscribers can now view the new vocabulary items for each lesson in any of the 4 modes we’ve been using elsewhere (Pinyin, Simplified, Traditional and English).  Hopefully this can provide yet another way to review the vocabulary taught in each lesson.

Regular users can sample how this works by playing with the modes for the first 4 lessons of level 3.

Writing in Chinese Basics – The Radical

Some common radicals

There are different approaches to learning Chinese. Some choose to only focus on listening and speaking. Others add reading to the mix. The truly adventurous however attempt to add being able to write in Chinese to their portfolio. On the surface, this looks like an impossible task. The Chinese language has thousands of characters – a lot of them quite complicated looking. How on earth is anyone expected to memorize them? Today’s post will detail one of the secrets behind why the process isn’t as difficult as it seems on the outside!

A person with no English background may look at the written English language and think “how can anyone memorize how to write so many words?” A closer look however will reveal that it’s not the words you are memorizing, but the letters they are composed of. Once you have the letters down pat, all you are doing is rearranging existing letters in new combinations to form new words. Well, unbeknownst to many, Chinese characters work in a similar fashion! If you were to actually study characters in detail, you will notice that many share common features, known as radicals. Once you learn how to write the common radicals, you will find new characters are just different combinations or variations of existing radicals. Since many of the characters tend to be pictorial representations of certain concepts, you can even try to learn why certain radicals are combined and what the meaning is behind the combination. Take a look at the following example.

女, 子

The first character represents a woman (it somewhat represents a person sitting down cross legged). The character next to it represents a child. Put these two together and you get:

which is the character meaning “good.” The pictorial representations and meanings can be quite abstract as you can see, but it does add to the enjoyment and ease of learning the language if you are able to think in these forms. Now once you have learned how to write the radical for woman, you will notice it cropping up in lots of other characters.

媽, 按,要, 妞,妹,如,妥,姓,婪,姚,姆

Notice how the same radical shows up on the side (a squeezed version) in some characters and at the bottom in others. This particular radical takes three strokes to write, so once you have mastered it, that is three less strokes for you to memorize each time you write one of these new characters using it. In total, there are 214 radicals, although some are a lot more commonly used than others. If you have ever wondered how Chinese dictionaries are used – here’s your answer. The thousands of characters out there are neatly sorted into dictionaries by radicals, so there’s another good reason to learn them. In future posts, I will go over which radicals and characters you should start learning first and how to go about actually “learning” them.

Chinese Names

Chow Yun Fat

Today’s post describes the naming system used in Chinese families and how they differ from Western conventions. The biggest difference is that in Chinese, the family name is listed first. This can cause a problem when moving to Western societies. Some adopt the Western convention by using a Western first name and moving their family name to the end (such as actor Jackie Chan). Others may choose to retain their Chinese name but change the word order (such as Chien Ming Wang, pitcher for the NY Yankees baseball team). Others may decide to leave their name and word order as it is, such as in the case of Chow Yun Fat (pictured above), the famous Hong Kong actor. For less common names, this can cause confusion as to which is the first name and which is the last name. Indeed, Chow Yun Fat has corrected many who address him as Mr Fat, pointing out to them that it should be Mr Chow instead.

Unlike in Western societies, where there are several common first names and a lot of varying last names, in Chinese there are a lot of common last names, and it is the first name that tends to vary from person to person. In fact, estimates suggest that the top 100 common family names are shared by 90% of the Chinese population! Chinese family names are usually formed using a single character, whereas the first name is made up two characters. As a teacher, I found it fascinating to look through the class attendance lists which were all uniform as every student’s name was 3 characters long. You may also notice this the next time you stay to watch the credits at the end of a Chinese movie.

Whereas in English, there are certain words reserved as common names (John, Peter, Paul etc.), in Chinese, pretty much any word combination can be used to form a given name. This sometimes causes a problem when Chinese people are looking for Western names, as they assume the reverse is true. This results in their trying to form English names for themselves using words out of a dictionary, or by forming a literal translation of their Chinese names which can produce strange results (the first producer I used in Taiwan for my podcast introduced himself as “Dull Bird” which I didn’t bother questioning). When a child is born, convention is usually to give them a nickname to begin with, giving the parents time to seek a more proper name for the child (usually done within the first month of birth, sometimes with the help of a fortune teller). This is why stories using children often refer to them as “Little so and so” or using a character that is repeated twice (makes it sound cuter!). It is usually possible to guess the gender of a person from a name, since men tend to be given names with masculine meanings while women’s names usually promote female qualities. When women get married, unlike in traditional Western culture, they often retain their maiden name. Children however will adopt their father’s family name.

There are several options available for Westerners looking to create Chinese names for themselves. One option involves a standard transliteration of their Western name into Chinese. This is the format used for many famous Western stars giving us names like Tāngmǔ Kèlǔsī (汤姆克鲁斯) for actor Tom Cruise. However, this result doesn’t follow the normal pattern of 3 characters, so it is obviously referring to a “foreigner.” The other option is to consult the help of a Chinese person to come up with a name that combines elements of your first and last name plus any meaning you may want to convey (similar to how brand names get translated into Chinese as in our last post).

Western Culture from a Chinese Perspective

Harry Potter Book 6 Cover

One thing that struck me during my initial stay in Taiwan, was how everything imported from western culture had to be imported into Chinese first. If I asked someone on the street where the nearest McDonalds was, they wouldn’t know what I was referring to, even if there was one across the street, since I would need to use the Chinese equivalent 麥當勞 (Màidāngláo). The same is also true for famous Hollywood actors, books or movies. Ask any kid who Harry Potter is, and they couldn’t tell you. But refer to him as 哈利波特 (Hālì Bōtè) and of course they would rave about the latest book!

As you can see from the above examples, the Chinese equivalent is usually formed using a transliteration of the sound using the closest equivalent in Chinese characters. While it’s usually possible for Westerners to deduce the English equivalent by hearing the Chinese (especially if you have heard it before), local Chinese speakers usually have a harder time going the other way. I found this to be an interesting phenomenon, since characters that to us are homonyms (mài and mǎi for example) are completely distinct to native Mandarin speakers so it is harder for them to associate them together.

It is more complicated than this though, as some transliterations may end up producing meanings that don’t evoke the proper emotion. Some companies have a done a great job of combining the transliteration with a reasonable meaning. One of my favorites is KFC, which becomes 肯德基 (Kěndéjī). That sounds reasonable close to “Kentucky” while retaining the jī at the end meaning “chicken.” Another one I found particularly interesting was Coca Cola which is 可口可樂 (Kěkǒu kělè). From a transliteration point of view, it would have made much more sense for them to invert the characters to produce “Kǒu kě kǒu le” or something similar. However, the former name has a literal meaning of “tasty cola” which is obviously a good feeling for Coke to evoke and is why it was chosen.

So what is the lesson to be learned here? When in Rome, do like the Romans do. Learn what the Chinese equivalent of your name is. (In my case Adam becomes 亞當 (Yǎdāng)). Learn the name of your country and city is in Chinese if you expect to be able to tell where you’re from. If there are any other topics you wish to talk about, find out what their equivalent is in Chinese first to give yourself a head start.

Link to Us

For those of you with blogs or websites out there, who are interested in linking to CLO, I’ve set up a link page with some graphics that you can choose from.  This page will be added to the “About Us” menu.  If you have ideas for other images, do let me know.

Stroke Order

Stroke Order

My first lesson in Chinese characters came early on – during my first day at the high school I would be working at, soon after I had come to Taiwan. All of the teachers had to be present for a morning meeting led by the principal. Like anyone on their first day on the job, I showed up on time ready to begin my new experience.

However, I soon found that since the meeting was conducted entirely in Chinese, I had to find a way to occupy the next few hours. I noticed that there was a pen and paper placed in front of each person to take notes. I also noticed a card placed in front of each person with Chinese writing on it. I asked the person next to me what was written on it, and he explained that it was my name written in Chinese – “亞當老師” (Adam Teacher).

I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to learn how to write my name in Chinese (after all, I had a few hours to kill with lots of paper in front of me to practice on). So that’s exactly what I did. By the time the meeting was over, I was pretty proud of myself as I seemed to do a reasonable job of copying my name exactly as it read on my name card.

The next day in class, I decided to impress my students by showing them that I knew how to write my name in Chinese. As soon as I had placed the chalk on the board and began my first stroke, I heard a few “wrong!” choruses from the students.

“How could this be wrong if I haven’t even finished?” I retorted. That’s when I learned my first lesson in writing characters.

Since Chinese characters were initially written with paint brushes back in the day, the order of strokes used to write the character made a big difference to what the end character looked like. Nowadays, even when using pens and pencils to write characters, it is still possible for the trained eye to tell when a character is not written properly because of the wrong order of strokes used to write it.

There are rules for stroke order. In general, top always comes before bottom, and left always comes before right. So horizontal strokes are written from left to right and vertical strokes are written from top to bottom. Where there are multiple elements like in the example picture above, there are rules for which components are written first.

Rather than memorizing these rules, I found myself a dictionary that listed the stroke order for each character. I followed this order to practice the most commonly used characters. Do this enough times and you’ll eventually find yourself automatically figuring out the stroke order for new characters just by looking at them.

Couple of Tweaks

In response to some great user suggestions, the following two features have been added.

1. The audio player in the Complete and Podcast review pages now features a pop-up version, hopefully allowing better coordination between pausing and restarting the audio, while scrolling down the page.

2. There is now a direct access window on the sidebar that lets you go directly to the Vocabulary or Complete page for any lesson. This will hopefully be easier than manually looking for the lesson in the (many) Course Outline pages.

These are great, because I wouldn’t have been able to come up with these ideas on my own. If you think of other such features that will help out your overall usability experience do tell!

Pinyin Conversion Tool

In order to make the word bank work properly, we had to have a Pinyin conversion tool installed.  Thanks to feedback, we have decided to turn this into a separate tool.  While there are a lot of similar tools out there on the web, the difference here is that this lets you convert back and forth between numbers and tone marks (all the other ones I’ve seen only go one way).  This will be useful to me for the front page to turn the tone marks into numbers.  If some of you prefer to use numbers or have applications that don’t display tone marks properly, you are welcome to use it.

Again, this is another great tool brought to you by your own comments and ideas.  So do continue to send me your feedback and how you use the resources on this site, and / or what else would help in your learning.

The Pinyin Conversion tool can be found under the Resources tab.

When Should Students Learn Chinese Characters?

Chinese characters

This is a question that many students ask when learning Chinese. When is the best time to begin learning how to read and write characters? Should I focus just on speaking? Should I learn to read without writing? Is it even possible to begin learning how to read and write before learning how to speak?

At first glance, Chinese characters can present quite a mystery to foreigners. There is certainly an awe to them. How on earth are we expected to learn how to read several thousand characters, leave alone learn how to write them? Well, in this blog, I hope over time to reveal some of the secrets behind the process of learning how to read and write characters. Just make sure you don’t go around telling all your friends how it works.

It’s a lot like learning magic – if you start telling everyone how you do it, that takes away a lot of the fun, right? Why make it less impressive that you can read and write Chinese? Learn the secrets, enjoy the process, then wow all your friends!

I’ll use today’s post to answer one of the questions above. Is it ever too early to learn to read and write characters and is it possible to learn them even before you can speak?

The answer here is no, it’s never too early to learn. In the current university class I’m in, there are several foreigners with a remarkable ability to read and write but who lack experience in their listening and speaking skills. The process to learn to read and write can be taught separately from the listening and speaking process, and with time, anyone can learn how to do so in a reasonable amount of time.

Having said that, having a command of Chinese characters can aid greatly in vocabulary building, especially if you are living in a Chinese community, since you now have the ability to acquire knowledge from reading the vast number of signs around you, and being able to read books and stories at your level, that will aid in recognizing grammar and sentence patterns.

In future posts, I will provide more of a background on Chinese characters and how to demystify them, while outlining some of the steps needed to learn how to read and write in Chinese, along with techniques that can greatly reduce the amount of workload required so stay tuned!

Chinese Characters Intro

Chinese characters everywhere you look

In recent while, I’ve gotten a few emails regarding the best way to study Chinese characters. While I’m sure the answers to this question will vary from person to person, I thought I would use this blog to detail my own personal experiences with learning how to read and write Chinese.

One of the reasons that many find it hard to learn Chinese, even while living in a Chinese community, is due to not being able to read Chinese characters. Most learners of second languages get the majority of their learning from reading. If you’re trying to learn English while living in an English speaking country, you will get a lot of peripheral learning from being able to read.

While out on the street, you may see a bank and recognize it as being so, along with the word “bank” printed on the sign outside. However, looking at a street scene like the one pictured above, it’s hard to get any learning when you don’t understand any of the characters printed.

The majority of my initial learning of characters came from waiting at traffic lights on my scooter. I would look at street signs that were printed with the Pinyin equivalents below and try to match the characters with their equivalent Pinyin. I would pick out characters that were distinct and easy to remember such as 大 and 小 or that I were likely to see such as the characters for road or street and would pick them out from address signs. I learned numbers and tried to pick them out where I could too.

I then tried to extend this into something practical by learning the characters for certain foods. I felt much safer looking at a menu and being able to pick out beef (牛肉) at a glance instead of always having to rely on others. My favorite fruit was mango, so I could soon instantly look at the fruits and beverages section and pick out anything with 芒果 in it.

Without knowing, I was employing an approach of using comprehensible input, to further my knowledge. I would focus on what I already know and look for something slightly above it.

Further posts in this series will go into more detail on how you can use this approach to further your own learning.

Learning Insights Blog

The latest addition to the community page is the new learning insights blog.

In this blog, I hope to chronicle some of my own personal experiences while trying to learn Chinese, as well as detail some of the practices that worked best for me and how they apply to this course.  Along the way, I hope you will share some of your own thoughts of what ideas work for you, so that we can all benefit as students.  Much of the direction of this course has come from user feedback, so I hope this new blog will provide a better forum for that.

About Adam

Adam Menon

Welcome to Learning Mandarin Chinese Insights, a new blog I’ve started that will give you more of a background about myself, as well as some of the insights I’ve picked up along the way while learning Mandarin Chinese, and how they apply to my Learn Chinese Online(CLO) course.

I came to Taiwan in 2003, like many others, to teach English. My focus was on making and saving money teaching English, but one of the reasons I had chosen Taiwan was because I figured if I had to learn another language, learning Mandarin Chinese would be as good a choice as any.

During my first year here, not much effort was made on learning Chinese. I assumed I would learn by osmosis. After all, everything around me was Chinese – all the signs I saw and all the sounds I heard so I would have no choice but to learn Chinese, right?

Well I was shocked to find after my first year, that my level of Chinese was nowhere near what I would have hoped for after living here for a year. That’s when I decided to get serious about learning Chinese. Why waste such a grand opportunity to learn a new language while living in a new country!

Since my focus was still on teaching English, I wasn’t prepared to give up my working hours to learn Chinese, so all my Chinese learning had to be self taught during my spare time. I started devouring any and all material I could come across related to learning Chinese. I purchased books and CDs galore. At the same time, I was also interested in language learning techniques to improve my English teaching skills, so I began to develop an interest in the differences in learning techniques used by native Chinese speakers to learn English versus those used by native English speakers to learn Chinese.

Although I had purchased a lot of books and courses (I had over 20 of them occupying my shelf), I found that the majority of my time was spent on a few that I found to be the best. That was about the time the first seed was planted, that while a few courses excelled in certain areas, there didn’t seem to be one definite one out there that combined all the aspects that I thought were required for a good teaching system.

To make a long story short, I completed two more years in Taiwan (so three years in total) and then moved back to Canada. By then, I had enough of a vocabulary base to communicate basic concepts in Mandarin, but certainly not enough to understand Mandarin news on television. During my learning, there was very little focus given on reading and writing so my reading skills were quite minimal whereas my writing skills were non existent.

After returning to Canada, I decided to start CLO as a way to combine my experiences in language teaching and learning in Taiwan with my Computer Science background. I initially used Kirin, a native Taiwanese who was visiting Canada at the time, as my main speaker since she had a very clear manner of speaking. After she returned to Taiwan, I employed local immigrants from various parts of China and Taiwan who were now living in Canada.

During this time, I was still designing all the lessons myself and using the speakers as consultants and for the recording aspects. However, as the level of the course increased, I realized that at some point it would exceed my ability to create new lessons, which is why I decided to return to Taiwan after exactly a year off, to continue production of the course from here.

Since this was now a full time venture for me, I decided it would be in my interest to add some formal learning in Chinese to my experience. I was also very curious as to what types of techniques were used in classroom settings when teaching Chinese to foreign learners and whether any of these techniques could be used in my course so I enrolled myself in a local University course.

I’m happy to say that I’ve been very pleased with the class so far and would certainly like to develop some of the learning techniques used in the class into techniques that can be used in my course. There is a great emphasis within the course on reading and writing Chinese characters, so my mind is bursting with ideas for things I could write about in this blog in that area.

I am in talks right now with multiple teachers on what techniques they could contribute to the course, so I’m certainly excited about the possibilities for the future.

As I share my experiences with you, I would love to hear from some listeners as well. Let me know what techniques work for you and what don’t. I’ll admit that a lot of the ideas in this course didn’t come from me, but from feedback from users, so please continue to send me your comments, as they will direct the future direction of this course.

Create Your Personal Feed

In preparation for the return of PDF transcripts to the Premium section, I have added an option for you to select what exactly you would like delivered to you in your Premium feed. The Premium feed currently features 3 different categories – the dialogue summary, the slow dialogue summary with pause for repeating after the speaker, and the podcast review. By visiting the new feed options page, you can select which of the above you want delivered to you in your feed. If you are happy receiving all of the content, then no changes are necessary.

Later, when different PDFs options are available, you will also be able to choose which versions of the PDFs you would like included as well.

If you do make any changes, it may take some time for your old feed to update, so do be patient. As always, if you have any technical issues, please let me know.

Word Bank Update

Thanks to feedback from users, I’ve been trying to improve the functionality of the Word Bank.  As this course has progressed (now heading into level 3), so has the size of the Word Bank.  While this of course is a good thing, it also means that when searching for certain entries in Pinyin, a lot of homonym results may also show which may be completely unrelated to what you are searching for.

In the past, the Pinyin search did not support tone marks, so every variation of a word and all its homonym equivalents were shown with the search.  Recently, I have added tone mark support to increase this accuracy.  This has resulted in better results when you click on Pinyin words from the Complete transcripts.  However the problem still remained that it wasn’t easy for users to enter tone marks when searching for Pinyin words manually.

I’m happy to say that this problem has now been solved!  When searching in Pinyin, you can now use numbers to represent tone marks (similar to the number format used when lessons are released on the front page of the site), and the Word Bank will automatically convert these numbers into the appropriate tones.  Try it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

Really Complete Transcripts

Observant viewers may notice a change in the latest Complete transcript for lesson 116. There is a bar on top that now allows you to view the characters in various forms including Pinyin (the default), Traditional, Simplified or in plain English! The popup translations still work as before translating Pinyin to English, Chinese characters to Pinyin and English back to Pinyin. Hopefully those of you studying to read Chinese characters will find this useful for upcoming lessons.

UPDATE: This format is now being used for the Premium podcast transcripts as well.  So you now have multiple ways to test yourself there as well.  Enjoy!