Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mandarin Wednesdays

Sort of like Orange Wednesdays. Except in this case the orange is specifically Chinese.

I don't know if you've noticed, but I have a lot of spare time on my hands, even with working, travelling and trying to explore new places taking up most of my days. I very rarely spend the rest of the time doing anything productive, which is why I've decided to give myself a kick up the 屁股 and devote at least one day per week to hardcore Chinese Mandarin language studies.

It doesn't have to be Wednesday if I'm doing something on Wednesday, but at least one day a week should be properly intense. No more of this going-to-the-park-and-watching-the-turtles-swim-around-while-making-lazy-notes-from-my-pocket-Mandarin-phrasebook for me. Turtles have been distracting me from academic achievements since I was five.

Maybe I'll write a blog post every so often covering what I've learnt to help motivate me, because it's clear how much disproportionate value I give to blogs. These potential posts will cover aspects of Mandarin language that I feel I've sufficiently mastered, setting my stupid mnemonics and memory aids in stone for other language students to accidentally come across and be confused, disappointed and angered by.

You're probably not learning Mandarin, so don't read these posts as they will be of no interest. They're mostly just for me... you know, unlike the rest of my universally accessible stuff.

This week: telling the time.

I've already mastered Chinese counting with the help of this stupid visual memory exercise that did actually work to build those neural connections (even if I had to re-learn how to pronounce some of them once I got to Taiwan).

When you know numbers 0 to 10, it's very easy to learn how to make them into tens and so on.

Mandarin numbers 11 to 99

11-19 are '10 + unit' - so eleven and twelve are shí­ yī (十一) and shí­ èr (十二) ('ten-one' and 'ten-two' up to 'ten-nine')

Multiples of 10 are 'number x 10' - so twenty and thirty are èr shí (二十) and sān shí (三十) ('two times ten' and 'three times ten' up to 'nine times ten')

All other numbers between 21 and 99 simply add the relevant unit to the ten - so twenty one and twenty two are èr shí ­ yī (二十一) and èr shí èr (二十二) ('two times ten plus one' and 'two times ten plus two' up to 'nine times ten plus nine')

The only dodgy part here is that two - normally èr (二) - sometimes becomes liǎng (两) when it's used as a qualifier. Annoying, yeah, but it's the only oddity you have to learn, so deal with it. Not like English numbers, with their 'eleven and twelve' (why not 'one-teen' and 'two-teen'?), and 'two,' 'three' and 'five' becoming 'twe-,' 'thir-' and 'fif-', or 'forty' dropping the 'u.' Even 'teen' is a bit stupid, now I think about it - why be Denny Different?

Mandarin time

This simplicity extends to Mandarin time, which is treated digitally. None of this 'past' or 'to' business. The Chinese have always been ahead of the game. And then stuck in 1976, or whenever digital watches were the peak of futurism. The only additional words you'll need are:

zhōng (鐘) - the equivalent of 'o'clock' (I remember it as a Big Ben style 'bonnng')
diǎn (點) - the audio equivalent of the visual colon or decimal point between the hour and the minute
fēn (分) - the word for 'minutes'

There's a whole other load of vocabulary needed when it comes to asking the time, but I'll stick to the responses here as they're almost patronisingly straightforward.

One o'clock yī diǎn zhōng (一點鐘)
3:20 sān diǎn èr shí fēn (三點二十分)
Five to six wǔ diǎn wǔ shí wǔ fēn (五點五十五分)

Mandarin days

Days of the week couldn't be simpler. They're simple for the Chinese people's own benefit, not yours, as the seven-day week and twelve-month calendar were among the dubious 'gifts' our colonial ancestors thrust on the Chinese a couple of centuries back.

So rather than learn or adapt the namesakes of various irrelevant Norse gods that almost no native English speakers really understand anyway, the pragmatic Chinese kept things simple and opted for 'week + number' - with xīng qī (星期) being the word for 'week.'

Okay, apart from Sunday which is specifically marked out as the supposed holy day (literally 'heaven day'). But come on, it was Sunday. Cut them some slack.

Monday xīng qī yī (星期一)
Tuesday xīng qī èr (星期二)
Wednesday xīng qī sān (星期三)
Thursday xīng qī sì (星期四)
Friday xīng qī wǔ (星期五)
Saturday xīng qī liù (星期六)
Sunday xīng qī tiān (星期天)

Mandarin months

Months are every bit as easy as days, as long as you can count to 12. Except this time it's 'number x month' with the number coming first, followed by the word for 'month' - yuè (月). Can you handle this level of complexity?

January yī yuè (一月)
February èr yuè (二月)
March sān yuè (三月)
April sì yuè (四月)
May wǔ yuè (五月)
June liù yuè (六月)
July qī yuè (七月)
August bā yuè (八月)
September jiǔ yuè (九月)
October shí yuè (十月)
November shí yī yuè (十一月)
December shí èr yuè (十二月)

What did I tell you? If only English was so straightforward and it was '-embers' all the way. Why do the '-arys' give up so soon? Why isn't August in the autumn? I'm glad I never had to learn that stupid language.

These Chinese studies are looking good - if the whole language is this straightforward, I should be fluent in no time! It doesn't get more complicated from here on in, right?

...Right? Kill me now.

Photos taken in Taiwan


  1. You should download the Pimsleur Mandarin course. Really great audio course that makes it incredibly easy to retain new stuff and use it intuitively (basically, it teaches you grammar and structure without you realising).

  2. Yep, already done! I downloaded Pimsleur for other languages too, when I made incredibly half-arsed attempts to learn Greek and Hebrew phrases (actually, I just realised I still remember a lot of them - it must work).

    I only did the first few lessons when I was in Taiwan, even though I was there 10 weeks - LAZY. So I'll do it properly this time. I found a really handy pocket phrasebook in a hostel library last week too, so I can learn the spelling as well as the speaking (and I bloody love the writing, it looks so great and it really makes sense once you get into it).

    So I have all the ingredients. Now I just have to bother. I hope routine helps.

  3. That's cool about the writing making sense. I suppose to somebody who has utterly no knowledge of it (me, basically) it looks totally random but it's totally logical that there is a structure to it. Cool! :P

  4. I'm not sure what the structure is exactly, but I think in a lot of cases the characters build and you can see the foundations beneath the added strokes.

    I was hanging out with an American once who was fluent in Mandarin but still learning the writing, and she could work out the meaning of words she'd never seen before by identifying simpler things like 'hand' and 'mountain' in them. All her guesses were correct - she was delighted and I was inspired.

    One problem is, Simplified Chinese will be a bit easier and more relevant to learn (it's what they use in Beijing and most places - they've reduced the clutter and taken most characters to their bare bones). But the more needlessly complicated Traditional Chinese writing looks so much nicer :(

  5. I like that the number four looks like a window with a set of curtains.

  6. Fun four fact:

    Number 4 (sì) is a fun controversial number, because if you pronounce it with the wrong tone it sounds like the word for 'death' (sǐ).

    So, just as silly superstitious Western people avoid the number 13, silly superstitious Chinese, Japanese and Korean people avoid the number 4.

  7. I knew that because of 'top quality' sports journalist about a decade ago. When the world cup was in Japan/Korea, the England player given the number four shirt and his first replacement both got injuries ruling them out of the tournament without playing a game.

    They probably both wrote blog posts about how the world is out to get them and specifically them.