Learning Mandarin by watching… The Big Bang Theory? We’ll get to this in a minute but first…
A quick tangent about tones in Chinese
One of the reasons Mandarin Chinese is so intimidating to people is the notion that if you mess up the tones even just a little bit, then the meaning of what you’re trying to say can change drastically. This is the reason why It’s really important to focus on tones right from the start when learning Chinese!
I don’t want to scare you too much. It’s just important to emphasize that tones are not simply a small part of the Chinese language, they ARE the language.
It’s important to remember that in order to be understood when speaking Chinese, the very minimum you’ll need is a decent command of the four tones. Notice how I said tones and not pronunciation!
Pronunciation refers to the way the word is said and tone refers to the pitch of a word. Often times, if you pronounce something wrong, you can still be understood provided your tones are correct!
This is actually pretty cool because it means that having correct tones can save you when you mess up a word’s pronunciation. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t work the other way round.
For the rest of this blog post, we’re going to analyze Sheldon’s use of Mandarin in ‘The Big Bang Theory’.
So, without further ado, let’s get into it!
Sheldon speaks Chinese
If you’re a fan of the hit show ‘The Big Bang Theory’ then you may have noticed that various characters throughout the show’s 10 seasons have had a go at speaking Mandarin.
The first instance of this is at the end of season one when Howard tries to teach Sheldon Mandarin (Chinese must just about be the only subject that Sheldon DOESN’T have a Ph.D. in!).
The reason that Sheldon wants to learn Mandarin is that he believes the local Chinese restaurant, Szechuan Palace, is passing orange chicken off as tangerine chicken (Oh heavens, how could they?).
Sheldon wants to confront them about this awful conspiracy and elicits Howard’s help to learn the phrase ‘给我看你用的陈皮’. ‘Show me your tangerine peels’.
Let’s break the sentence down:
给我看 – Show me (literally give (给) me (我) look (看))
你用的 (nǐ yòng de) – your used
陈皮 (chén pí) – Tangerine peels – NOTE: The word for peel/rind, 皮 (pí), can be used in general to mean the outer skin of something. For example 饺子皮 – means the outside part of a dumpling).
Languages clearly aren’t his strong suit but Sheldon’s pronunciation of this sentence wasn’t bad! I’ll give him 7/10!
When Sheldon is practicing this sentence, he gets tapped on the back by Penny and gets an awful fright. He yells out 吓死我了 ‘you frightened me’. Sheldon nailed this one. 9/10!
Let’s break it down:
吓 (xià) – to frighten, to scare
死 (sǐ) – death
我 (wǒ) – me
了 (le) – Here this particle ‘le’ is used for emphasis
So a more accurate translation might be ‘you scared me to death!’
You’ll see this construction being used quite a bit in Mandarin Chinese. The word ‘死了’ is often used to emphasize a negative adjective.
Let’s have a look at some examples using the construction adjective + 死了
我累死了 – ‘I’m so tired I could die’
我饿死了 – ‘I’m so hungry I could die’
热死了 – ‘I’m so hot I could die’
痛死了 – ‘It’s so painful I could die’
So after all Sheldon’s practice, how were the results of his studies? Well, not very good, unfortunately.
He messed up his pronunciation!
At the end of the episode, Sheldon goes to Szechuan Palace with the intent of asking them to show him their tangerine peels. However, he messes up his pronunciation and instead says ‘鼻涕在哪儿’. Meaning, ‘Where is the snot?’
Clearly what he meant to say was ‘陈皮在哪儿?’ – ‘Where are the tangerine peels?’
NOTE: His mistake here was saying 鼻涕 (bí tì) instead of 陈皮 (chén pí)
Let’s break it down:
鼻涕 (bí tì) – ‘snot’ or ‘mucous’
在哪儿 (zài nǎ ér) – ‘where’
Sheldon’s sentence construction is good, he just messes up the first part of the sentence by saying 鼻涕 instead of 桔皮. Unfortunately, I’ll have to give him a 4/10 for this one.
The construction ‘Object + 在哪儿?’ Means ‘Where is (Object)?’
Let’s look at some examples of this construction:
书在哪儿? – Where is the book?
椅子在哪儿 ? – Where is the chair?
手机在哪儿? – Where is the cell phone?
‘在哪儿’ can also be used to ask where a place is. For example:
公园在哪儿? – Where is the park?
地铁站在哪儿? – Where is the subway station?
Just remember next time you want to confront your local Chinese restaurant about the authenticity of their food, have you pronunciation checked by a native speaker first!
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One of the very best ways to learn any foreign language is through immersion. You might have heard some people go as far to say that learning Chinese through immersion is the only possible way to learn the language. This is definitely incorrect, although, it probably is the best way.
What is language immersion?
Language immersion is basically the act of completely immersing yourself in the language you’re studying.
How do you do this, you ask?
Well, it may come as a surprise to you, but going to the country where the language is spoken is not the only answer to this question! There are two types of language immersion; what we’ll call ‘in-country immersion’ and ‘out-of-country immersion’ or ‘virtual immersion’.
In this post, we’re going to focus on in-country immersion but make sure to sign up to our newsletter to be notified when new posts come out as we’re planning to talk about these two topics in much more detail in the coming weeks.
Should I really move to China JUST to learn the language?
The simple answer is no. Moving to a new country is a big deal and it would be really hard if you had no idea what you were getting yourself into. It’s not a good idea to make a big move without at least some desire to experience the lifestyle and culture of the country.
Before making a big move it’s a good idea to learn about the local culture, the climate and the rules and regulations with regards to visas and foreign residents.
Also, China is a BIG country (seriously, it’s huge). It’s preferable to do some research about different cities and provinces to decide where you want to go.
By the way, if you happen to choose Beijing you better be prepared for mind-numbingly cold winters and scolding hot summers!
The good news is that if you’re actively studying Mandarin Chinese, chances are that you’ve at least got some knowledge of China and its culture, history, and people.
The next thing worth considering is that China isn’t the only option you have for in-country immersion!
Ever heard of a little island called Taiwan? Taiwan is also Mandarin speaking and its capital city, Taipei, is known for being extremely safe and foreigner friendly!
How would I support myself in China/Taiwan?
The next big question is how you support yourself while you’re over in China or Taiwan. Well, there are a few options but the most popular by far is… teaching English!
My kindergarten class in Beijing
Teaching English is the popular choice as it pays quite well and jobs are readily available. Becoming an English teacher provides you with the visa and financial means you need to stay in China and learn Chinese through immersion.
Teaching English in Asia has become a really popular thing to do these days. With China’s recent economic boom, the demand for English teachers in the country has increased immensely.
Many Chinese parents have dreams of sending their kids to high school/university overseas in America or Britain and thus take their child’s English education very seriously.
This means that getting a job as an English teacher in Mainland China is pretty easy! As for Taiwan, I can’t say for sure, but I imagine there is no lack of jobs for English teachers there either. Check out this article if you’re interested in teaching English in Taiwan.
What are the requirements to teach English in China?
Well, to teach English in China full-time, you’ll need a working visa. In order to get one, you’ll need an employer (duh) as well as a bachelor’s degree (your degree can be in anything) and preferably a TEFL certificate too.
Along with those three key things, you’ll also need other standard documents such as a police clearance, health certificate etc. I plan to do another post on this at some point where I’ll go into much more detail.
The working visa laws change quite often in China so it’s a good idea to do some research of your own closer to your planned departure time.
The good news is that if you find a good employer (whether a school or agency), they will help you out with all the visa stuff! Working visas are usually issued for a period of one year and can be extended fairly easily.
English teaching jobs can range from kindergarten positions to corporate training for large companies. Just bear in mind that contracts are usually for a minimum of one year.
What if I don’t have a degree/can’t commit to a whole year?
If teaching English doesn’t scare you but spending a whole year abroad does, then why not do an internship?
Teaching internships in China generally run for six months and are a great way to ease yourself into a new way of life.
Internships are fun and you’re usually placed at a school with other foreigners. The best part about doing a teaching internship is that you don’t need a degree! The minimum you’ll need is a TEFL certificate.
If you’re interested I suggest checking out i-to-i TEFL.
What if I don’t want to teach English?
There are definitely other jobs available to foreigners in China besides teaching English. For example, I had a friend in Beijing who worked as a nightclub promoter and another who was an American football coach!
These kinds of positions tend to be harder to find, and only available in the bigger cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou etc but it’s worth looking around because the opportunities are there!
Another idea is to save up a little more money and enroll in a 3-6 month intensive Mandarin course at a university or language school (check out Beijing Language and Culture University).
The advantage of this is that you’ll get access to quality Chinese teachers and you’ll also get issued a student visa, which can also be renewed should you decide to stay on.
Plus, if you decide to go this route, there’s no stopping you from privately tutoring English to local kids or students in your free time (just make sure they pay you cash in hand, as you’re technically not allowed to earn money without a working visa). Many people do this kind of thing for some extra drinks money!
If you’re really serious about moving to China/Taiwan in order to learn Chinese through immersion then It’s all about doing the research and deciding what option is best for you. Post on forums, speak to friends who’ve done similar things and just try to find out as much information as you can!
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This week we decided to focus on writing a post specifically about learning Mandarin Chinese. The topic of this blog post, ‘Five secrets to fluent Mandarin’, actually comes from our e-book. So, if you want to hear us go into more detail on the matter, then pick up a copy here.
Throughout my time in China, I encountered many foreigners who were on a journey to reach fluency in Mandarin. Some of them excelled and some of them gave up early on. I always wondered why this was. Many people would put it down to ‘talent’ and simply say that some people are better language learners than others, but I don’t subscribe to this line of thought… at all!
You see, I believe that anything can be learned. The level to which we can learn a new skill depends on how well we understand it. Passion and desire are the driving forces behind our learning but our level of understanding determines our level of success.
Have you ever heard someone say, ‘the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another’? Well, the reason for this is that the more languages you have learned previously, the better you understand the whole language learning process. It’s quite logical really, the more you do something, the better at it you get.
However, what if Mandarin Chinese is the first language you’ve attempted to learn and you’re worried that because of your lack of experience learning languages that you’re going to fail?
Well, our aim is to give you all the knowledge and tools you need to succeed in your journey without necessarily having experience learning other languages.
Anyway, that’s enough rambling for now!
Let’s go straight to the five pillars of learning Mandarin, starting with number one…
1. Keep your Initial focus on listening and speaking
A lot of people want to dive straight into learning how to read and write characters when they begin learning Mandarin but we think this is a bad idea.
Because Chinese characters can be pretty intimidating, especially if you have zero knowledge of the language.
It would be really easy to sit and write out Chinese characters for hours each day only to forget them days later. The reason for this is that you need a base level, a foundation, in Chinese before you can comfortably start learning to read and write characters.
The other reason we think everyone should initially focus on listening and speaking is that those skills will improve really fast! Seeing such a quick improvement in your ability to speak and understand Mandarin will give you the confidence boost you need to continue your studies and learn to speak fluent Mandarin.
2. Maintain realistic expectations
We tend to get really excited when embarking on the journey of learning something new and this excitement often fades very quickly when we realise all of the hard work that lies ahead. That’s why if your goal is to be able to speak fluent Mandarin, it’s important to have realistic expectations.
As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is fluency in Mandarin.
People often start to lose motivation when they aren’t making as much progress as they hoped they would.
But here’s the secret. There are often many ‘clicking points’ in language learning. A clicking point is when everything you’ve been studying suddenly all comes together and you feel like you finally understand everything that was previously lost on you.
It may take a little while to reach your first clicking point but if you follow these five secrets, you definitely will.
3. Study consistently
What ‘study consistently’ really means here is do a little bit every single day. In order to make progress in a new language, you have to be exposed to the language on a daily basis. Consistently spending time with the language will allow your brain to slowly get used to it and you’ll subconsciously begin to decipher all its rules and patterns.
Studying for hours one day and doing nothing the next is not a winning strategy!
Even if there’s one day in the week where you literally only have 10 minutes free, use that time to do something in Mandarin – Review yesterday’s material, listen to a podcast, have a go at writing a self-introduction or send your Chinese pen pal a message. It doesn’t matter, just make sure you’re putting the time in every day to improving your Mandarin and you will achieve fluency.
4. Pay attention to tones
Tones are extremely important in Chinese. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. A somewhat decent command of the four tones is the very minimum you’ll need to be understood by native speakers. It’s really important that you focus on getting the tones correct from day one! Neglecting tones, in the beginning, will come back to bite you later on.
You don’t want to have to go back and retrain your pronunciation after months of studying.
It may be frustrating and difficult but making a conscious effort to learn the four tones, in the beginning, will pay off greatly when native speakers start showering you in compliments – saying things like ‘你的发音非常好!’
5. Study efficiently
Lastly, we have efficiency. Studying efficiently means learning the most that you can in the time that you have available to you. In other words, if you only have 20 minutes a day to dedicate to your Mandarin studies, it’s probably not wise to use that time watching Chinese dramas. It would be a better use of your time to listen to more dialogues and learn new vocabulary.
Also, it’s important that you start to integrate the Mandarin language into your day, every day.
Do you take the subway to work? Well, why not use that time to review the previous day’s dialogues?
These are our five secrets to fluent Mandarin! Remember, our e-book ‘Talking Mandarin’ goes into much more detail on each of these five points, so grab a copy if you’re interested.
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