Sunday, November 18, 2012

Learning the Many Dialects of China

After having lived in Shandong province for a while, I have had the occasional struggle of trying to understand different dialects. Generally, I try to stick with the standard Mandarin 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà ),as learning that alone is a challenge. However, occasionally I may hear a few words in 济南话 (Jinan dialect) or 威海话 (Weihai dialect), which will then confuse the heck out of me. I just wanted to touch upon some of the interesting differences between dialects.

Here are some differences between 山东话 and 普通话(1).
字    山东话    普通话
买     man        mǎi
卖     man        mài
没     mu阳平     méi
国     gui          guó 
过     ge           guò
去     qi            qù 
雪     xie          xuě

There are numerous other differences, but these are only a few examples to see the contrast between both dialects. While it can be somewhat of a challenge for native Chinese speakers to understand other dialects, it can be extremely challenging as foreigners. Generally however, most Chinese will accommodate foreigners and will make a point to speak in Mandarin, as to not confuse foreigners.

It's also interesting how people from the north don't speak the same dialect, but can still understand each other. However, when they go to the south, they can barely get around. My wife is from the north and speaks 普通话, but she said when she visits Shanghai, she can't even tell if people are just having a conversation or are arguing, as even their tone of voice is so different than their neighbors to the north.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Common beginner mistakes #2 - Measure Words

When first learning Mandarin, one of the more difficult obstacles to tackle, can be learning all of the major measure words and how to use them. After all, there are quite a few to remember. However, one can't simply get by with 个 (gè) alone. In order to become fluent, one must successfully navigate the measure word terrain.

For those who don't understand what measure words are, I will break them down simply for you. Measure words are also known as classifiers. They are used along with numbers to specify the quantity of an object.

Here are some of the major measure words that you may encounter:

This classifier may be used for birds, certain animals, utensils, etc.
wǒ kàn dào yì zhī gǒu 
I saw a dog.

 条 (tiáo)
Used for strip, article, item, clause, or long things (anything from pants to a river).
wǒ xiǎng mǎi liǎng tiáo yú
I would like to buy two fish.

个 (gè)
This classifier is used for people and several objects. If unsure of what classifier to use, one can always use 个 as it is quite versatile.
wǒ yǒu yī gè qiú
I have one ball.

根 (gēn)
This classifier is used for long, slender objects.
yì gēn bàng qiú bàng
One baseball bat.

辆 (liàng)
辆 is used as a classifier for vehicles.

张 (zhāng)
This is used for papers, tables, chairs, and other flat objects.

盒 (hé)
This is used for boxes of objects. This could be used for a box of doughnuts for example.

There are many, many more classifiers out there. However, these are some of the more common ones. Hopefully this helped to clear up some of the major measure words/classifiers for some of you. More to come in the future!

Keep learning,

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Eating Safely in China/Navigating Numerous Dietary Pitfalls

I wanted to touch upon this topic, as it's something I feel is very important personally. I would suspect there are quite a few others in China who also may be wary about food safety. Not to say that only Chinese food has safety issues, as there are far more GMOs in North America, for example. However, there are numerous food additives in China that one should steer clear of, and I would like to clarify some of the important ones. I will also give the 汉字 for each one, so that you may identify it under the nutritional information on a food's label. If you are not concerned, I will also lay out some of the health effects for you, so that you may understand why the particular ingredient is of concern.

(remember that not all labels are accurate, so buying packaged food always presents some risk)

Ingredients are usually labelled as 配料 pèi liào.

Chemicals to Avoid:

1. MSG: 味精 wèi jīng

A neurostimulating amino acid. Contributes to NUMEROUS diseases, migraines, autism, insomnia, ADHD, etc.

2. Aspartame: 阿斯巴甜 ā sī bā tián

Another neurostimulating amino acid. Aspartic acid has been shown to contribute to many diseases. Very similar side effects to MSG.

3. Tartrazine/Yellow #5: 柠檬黄 níng méng huáng / 酒石黄 jiǔ shí huáng

May cause anxiety, migraines, ADHD. Even shown to possibly aggravate carpal tunnel (something I suffer from quite frequently!). (1)

4. E124, Acid Red 18/Ponceau 4R (oftentimes not labelled): ?? (Chinese unknown) May be listed in English.

This particular chemical was found in several shipments of haw flakes to the US. (2)
"Since it is an azo dye, it may elicit intolerance in people intolerant to salicylates. Additionally, it is a histamine liberator, and may intensify symptoms of asthma. In combination with benzoates, it is also implicated in hyperactivity in children. "(3)

In addition to these listen chemicals, there are also several food safety scandals that one should be aware of. One of recent occurrence, involved the milk company Yili. High levels of mercury were found in their milk powder. (4) The melamine scandal of 2008 also comes to mind as likely the largest food scandal in China thus far. As a result of these sorts of findings, one should always be careful when purchasing food in China, and should ensure that they read the labels and EDUCATE themselves before putting their trust in a company.





Monday, November 5, 2012

Common beginner mistakes #1 - Use of 了

Here is a problem I see beginning Mandarin students make quite often. The misuse of "了“ / le.

了/le is a temporal modifier.

Therefore, the most common use of 了 is to express completion of an action. Some learners mistakenly believe it is only used for past tense. It is often used for this purpose, however, not all past tense sentences will utilize this character. However, there is more to this character of 了.

Here is a typical pattern including the use of 了:

Subject + Verb + 了 + Object


wǒ mǎi le liǎng píng shuǐ

I bought two bottles of water.

The best way to think of 了 is not as a past tense marker but as a perfective aspect marker.

On the perfective aspect of 了:

The perfective aspect particle le了 marks the perfective state of an action. It indicates that the action is completed. The aspect particle le了 is placed immediately after the verb. It is also called the verb-suffix –le了 or verb-le了. (1)

Another use of 了 can be to mark something that will take place in the future.


míng tiān wǒ shàng bān le jiù gěi nǐ fā e-mail.

Tomorrow I will send you the email.

Hopefully this will help to break down some of the confusion regarding 了. Personally, learning grammar to a point proved useful. However, using Mandarin in the real world made it far clearer and made the learning even more enjoyable. I recommend, if you get the chance to speak with a Chinese speaker, listening for 了 or finding a way to use it yourself!

- Jordan

1. "The Perfective -le Versus the Modal Particle le." Yale University Center for Language Study -- Comet: Course Materials and Exercise Templates. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <>.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Basics of Learning Mandarin Chinese

There are literally thousands of websites about learning Mandarin Chinese. Therefore, it can be quite a task wading through them all in search of the "holy grail" for learning the language quickly. However, through the several years of experience I have had learning Mandarin, I have found that quite a few sites were lacking in one of the essentials of the language. Either, they lacked sufficient information on how to learn to write the characters, lacked sound clips for pronunciation examples, or lacked some other integral piece of the puzzle.

The point? I am going to attempt to bring together, all in one place (this blog), the necessary resources for someone who wants to improve their Mandarin. Not just in one area, but in all areas (speaking, reading, writing, listening). Whether you want to go from newbie to fluent speaker, or just improve a little, this blog is for you. I will be finding the most useful materials (books, software, CDs, etc) and will hopefully save you some time in the process.

Having lived in China for several years, studied the language at home beforehand, and also having studied China at a university within China, I have had access to numerous training materials. Therefore, I have an idea of what works well, and what doesn't. Some books will be filled with unnecessary vocabulary in the early stages of learning, when all you want is survival Chinese. Some software for learning Chinese will bore you quickly, and seems to make learning feel like a chore. I will steer you to the better materials, and try to provide as much free information as possible to make a journey easier and more importantly, to make it ENJOYABLE.

Have fun learning Mandarin, and believe me, it's worth it!