Model Mandarin: August


Remember how to speak by saying things you shouldn’t.

One of the most difficult things to handle in learning Mandarin is the tones, but then again even if you know how to pronounce the right tones you could still be wrong. Different characters can have the same pronunciation and the same tone, leading to general silliness. For example, the pinyin syllable wèi can be written as 魏 or 为, both with different meanings. If you don’t know, you could relive a situation like David’s.

David comes to China to look for a job. To make a good impression in interviews, he invents a Chinese name, Wèi Mào (魏茂). One day he goes to a new company and has a conversation with one guy.

Guy: nǐ xìng shén me ?
你 姓 什 么?
What is your family name?

David: wǒ xìng wèi.
我 姓 魏
My family name is Wèi.

Guy: wèi shén me?
魏 什 么?
What’s your full name? (Also means “Why?”)

David: nán dào wǒ xìng wèi yě yào shuō wèi shén me?
难 道 我 姓 魏 也 要 说 为 什 么?
Why do I need a reason for my name?


A supplement for grammar practice

Have you ever been in a situation wanting to use a simple, short verbal phrase, but ended up embarrassing yourself by actually telling all in earshot that you were pregnant. It is very common to be asked if you have already eaten.

nǐ chī wǎn fàn le ma?
你 吃 晚饭 了 吗?
Have you had dinner yet?

If you answer incorrectly, you might embarrass yourself.

wǒ yǒu le. You intended to say, “I have had it”
我 有了 You actually said, “I’m pregnant.”

Le – The Chinese article meaning past or happening, in some situations, changes the meaning of the verb.

Another example of using “le.”

huài le, wǒ wàng le dài qián bāo le.
坏 了,我 忘 了 带 钱 包 了。
You think they said, “It broke. I forgot to bring my wallet.”
They actually said, “Oh crap! I forgot to bring my wallet.”

To know exactly where and when le changes the meaning of verbs takes time and experience, but these are the main ones that might bring embarrassment.


Mnemonic devices that work

Chinese characters are sometimes made up of clues. Sections are known as radicals, or piān páng (偏旁). For example, the radicals of ma (吗) is kǒu (口), that of yīn (音) are (立) and (日).

By itself, kǒu means mouth or is related to its function. It often appears as the left side of a character, but may also be the upper or lower component of a character.

0814_model mandarin好吃 – hǎo chī delicious
唱 – chàng to sing
唱歌 – chàng gē to sing a song
叫 – jiào to call
叫做 – jiào zuò be called


Conversation starters for Guangdongers

bou zuk (煲粥) – It means “cook porridge,” and refers to talking on the phone for a long time. Good for parents of teenagers, or when friends talk on the phone for an unreasonably long time. (speak “bou” in a high, steady tone and throw the “zuk” into a brick wall.)