Posts Tagged ‘Chinese Language


Add oil

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese spectators were urged to encourage the competitors from all nations by chanting jiāyóu jiāyóu (lit. Add Oil = refuel, make more effort, come on!, go, go GO!).

I have had my very own encourager on my last few morning runs as one of the gardeners has taking to yelling jiāyóu jiāyóu every time I jog past the patch of garden where he is working!


Language Scores (or wars)

I continue with my weekly language lessons, but don’t tend to speak much in the office context – there is enough miscommunication without adding the additional chaos that my poor Mandarin would throw into the mix. Then there are weeks where I have to cancel my lesson because of work commitments, etc, so I still feel that my progress is a bit snail like. It doesn’t help that I have taken up painting so some of the hours that I might have spent on language study have been re-allocated to a more enjoyable use of my free time!

Some language scores…

  • having a 5 minute conversation with the neighbour – and understanding about 90% of what she had to say…… + 10 points
  • accusing the taxi driver of ripping me off because I thought he had charged me 36 ¥ when he was actually making small talk about the weather being 36 degrees C….. – 15 points
  • managing to buy art supplies using only Mandarin & hand gestures….  + 10 points
  • having to resort to using my cellphone dictionary in the aforementioned art shop to look up the correct word for “pencil”, finding the correct word, using it, and having the shop assistant throw back at me – Ah! PENCIL!….. – 5 points
  • phoning my “Dining Secretary” from the side of the road to find out what had happened to our dinner reservation; getting hold of a non-English speaking operator and managing to communicate well enough for an sms confirmation to arrive a few minutes later…. + 20 points [I find trying to speak Mandarin over the phone incredibly stressful – probably because I can’t “speak with my hands” to assist my verbal stutterings!]
  • being able to correctly identify and type the Chinese bank account details that my husband has to enter for online payments – the form is in English, but the recipient names and bank account details have to be in Chinese characters….. + 10 points
  • having a long conversation with a taxi-driver on the way to the SA consulate – discussing the difference between Westerners and Chinese…. + 10 points
  • being worried that I might have agreed with things that he said that I would have very different opinions about if the discussion took place in English…. – 15 points

Taxi-driver Sociability Index

At the low end of the the scale, there is the “Grunter“. Greeting him/her elicits an “en” (rhymes with “ng”) – if you are lucky. Waiting for the question about where you want to go might lead to sitting in a stationary car all day. So to fill the silence and speed up the process, you end up blurting out the destination. Another “en” as a response – maybe. No other comments for the rest of the journey, no goodbyes, no thank you’s, no please take my taxi again. Silence. These dudes are not into socialisation.

Slightly more verbose is the “Greeter“. Greets you, asks you where you are going, gets you there and then might ask “cash/card” (you can pay for Shanghai taxis with a public transportation card), says thank you and goodbye.

Chatty” described the man/woman that says all that “Greeter” does, and adds in some additional conversation e.g. discussion about which route to take, pointing out other bad drivers on the road, etc.

Singer” might be “Chatty“, but also sings – either along to the current song playing on the radio; or unaccompanied.

Newby” is one of the new intake of drivers, usually from Chongming Island just north of Shanghai – basically they don’t know where they are going and you have to tell them how to get there. So they don’t say a lot, but as the passenger, you have to keep up the flow of directions. It helps to know how to get to where you want to go. Would be helpful to brush up on your Shanghainese at the same time, because that’s their dialect of choice.

Nosy” comments on your ability to speak Mandarin, asks about your nationality, how long you you’ve been in Shanghai – generally all the standard beginner Mandarin questions and answers.

Effervescent” is all of the above and enthusiastically jokes about your usage of the Chinese language, repeats all your directions/instructions with much hilarity, and wants to chat about anything and everything on the planet that you have no clue how to translate into English. It gets rather embarrassing to keep saying “So sorry, I don’t understand” at regular intervals during the conversation, but agreeing to everything could get you into a whole lot of trouble when you have no clue what is being said. Although trips with “Effervescent” are very entertaining, they can be very tiring!


En…(rhymes with ng)

Mandarin 101 coming up… Why don’t any of the textbooks teach you that “saying less is saying more”?

This all important word is left out of every textbook that I have seen – maybe they hide it in the Advanced series?

嗯 “En” (rhymes with ng) can be used in any one of the 5 tones, depending on the context, mood of the speaker, audience and any other factor you would like to add.

  • 1st tone: high-level, flat tone: eeeeennnnn. Translation = Satisfied grunt / Whatever / (a groaning sound)
  • 2nd tone: rising tone: eeeeeN. Translation = What? Huh? So? Why? How? Really? etc.
  • 3rd tone: falling and rising tone. EeeeeennnnnN. Translation = I’m not really sure / I need to think about that / Well….
  • 4th tone: sharp, falling tone. En! Translation = Enough! No! Not interested! Get lost! / (nonverbal grunt as interjection) / OK, yeah what?
  • 5th tone: neutral tone.  en. Translation = interjection indicating approval, appreciation or agreement

Why bother with hundreds of phrases when this one word can get you through most conversations with incredible ease????


Pharmacies and Ping-pong

I had forgotten how much fun it is to play in Chinese pharmacy. You get to bounce from counter to counter like the ping-pong computer virus of a few years ago.

When I visited the ophthalmologist, I was given a “prescription” for eye-drops – you don’t actually need a prescription for them, but the doctor thought it would be helpful to assist me in asking the pharmacist for what I needed. Wise man!

[For the record: I had just had my pupils dilated for the retina exam and my eyesight was seriously blurry, affected by bright lights etc, so I walked around with a sort of scrunched up, squinty outlook on the world… I trust that no adults, elderly citizens, children or animals were harmed during events that followed.]

Stage 1: Enter the pharmacy and head for the nearest counter. Benignly smiling elderly male pharmacist looks at my brandished script and waves in a vague friendly way to direct me to the next counter. I manage to avoid the glare of sunlight coming through the window and notice a long counter with ladies in white coats scattered along at regular intervals.

Stage 2: My next attempt at seeking assistance meets with an equally friendly smile and wave further along the counter. [Thinking….this could go on for a while.]

Bounce 3: Jackpot! I must be at the right place: pharmacist No.3 is ready to assist. She checks the script, scribbles a product code and a quantity on a scratchpad, tears off the page and tells me I need to go somewhere else to pay and then I can come back to collect the eye-drops.

Bounce 4: Not thinking (or seeing straight) I head back to the elderly male pharmacist, who gleefully waves me away in the opposite direction. Struck out, again!

Bounce 5: Duh! There is a sign saying “Cashier” (in English!) I hand over the scrappy piece of paper and my cash (foreign credit cards are not welcome here). I get my change and a till slip indicating that I have paid.

Bounce 6: Back to Pharmacist No. 3 who pounces on the till slip and digs the eye-drops out of the counter and hands it over. But not until I have signed my name on her list of products issued for that day. I am also instructed to sign the till slip in order to continue with my mission. She manages to convey to me that if I need a fāpiào 发票- the generally accepted document as proof of payment  for tax purposes – I need to head over in THAT direction. I don’t really need one, but I feel that if I bail out now, I won’t get full credit for completing Level 1 in my pharmaceutical ping-pong endeavour.

Stage 7: Head towards the door, bypassing the bemused elderly male pharmacist (who doesn’t seem to do anything except traffic control), I spy someone with a computer and terminal near the exit. I hand over the duly signed till slip. A look of horror crosses the fāpiào lady’s face as she struggles to read my signature. I then comprehend that I should have printed my name, not signed this piece of paper. As she starts struggling to spell it out verbally, I help her out by rewriting it in capital letters. Luckily her computer can handle Chinese and English. After one failed attempt, I retrieve the “chopped” (stamped) fāpiào (with a sort-of Russian version of my surname) and….

Home-straight: I am ready to exit stage left.

Level 1 – Game Over!


As an aside…I just have to make reference to the wonderfully appropriate Chinese characters that are used for the game of pīngpāng! Don’t you think they depict the game perfectly?




The road is long

Learning a language is a journey… a long, long, very long journey.

Starting out it’s all new and exciting and the beginner lessons are easy and fun. And then the road begins to slope upwards. And it gets harder to maintain momentum and to make progress. Just when I think that I might have made a bit of headway, I look up and see how much further I have to go, and my progress grinds to a halt as I stumble over my own feet and feelings of inadequacy.

Maybe it’s easier if you are able to study on a full-time basis, but trying to juggle a full-time job and the rest of one’s life and fitting language study in the bits of time that remain, means that it is difficult to commit to it 100%. I am a bit of a perfectionist and it frustrates me beyond measure that I haven’t got this language thing sorted out.

My brain leans towards problem solving and numbers and trying to memorise vocabulary and tones just does not compute! I like digging into the meanings of words and the grammar constructs that one uses to put them together, but all this is a bit useless if you can’t just splat it into a conversation at moment’s notice. I’m trying to learn the language so that I can converse and communicate, not just know all the theory.

When I start feeling that I am slipping backwards I tend to want to go back to Chapter 1 so that I can reassure myself that I haven’t missed anything out; so that I can at least tick a few mental boxes. I hate the fact that there’s a possibility that I haven’t mastered ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. And it is so depressing to realise that there are still some words in Chapter 5 that I can’t remember, even though I’ve been along this bit of the road so many times before. It’s enough to make you sit down and cry…

I keep trying to find new ways of learning – different strategies, new software aids, online podcasts. I have got into the habit of collecting new textbooks – my existing ones get so boring after Chapter 1 has been re-visited for the 50th time.

In the Hithchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote about the babelfish that you could put into your ear as a translation device. I need someone to hurry up and invent one of those. Maybe I’m just lazy and these are all just excuses!

I guess that in the end it all boils down to the fact that I just have to put in the time and effort and walk up the hills – and there are quite a few – one step at a time. Right now it feels as though I am walking along the N1 somewhere in the middle of the Groot Karoo. The road stretches relentlessly towards the horizon and there’s no hint of a signpost marking the next milestone. I think I’ll just sit here for a while and take a little rest.



In China, companies often select telephone numbers that sound similar to words or phrases that can be associated with their business/products.

The local number for a restaurant reservation hotline is 57-57-5777, which is pronounced 我吃我吃我吃吃吃吃 wǔ-qī-wǔ-qī-wǔ-qī-qī-qī and sounds similar to wǒ-chī-wǒ-chī-wǒ-chī-chī-chī (in English: I-eat-I-eat-I-eat-eat-eat!)

They also have a web site, now available in English: The Dining Secretary – which is very useful!

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July 2018
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