Posts Tagged ‘Pǔtōnghuà’

The ups and downs of tīng bù dǒng moments

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , ,

‘Tīng bù dǒng’ or 听不懂 – the most comforting phrase I know in Mandarin Chinese – yet the one I despise the most. The phrase I always revert to when my listening skills have failed me – failed me completely with the most basic of sentences.

This “safe” phrase – is one that has the power to crush a Mandarin conversation right there and then – that is IF you let your confidence and emotions control you rather than you being in control of the situation.

Earlier this week I went to the corner shop and I bought a few things. The lǎobǎn (老板) of this particular shop, knows that I can speak a little Chinese and as I was paying for the things I bought he said something in Mandarin to me. I wasn’t quite prepared for what he had to say and I realized that what he had said had been too fast – I had caught NONE of it. My automatic response as you can gather from the title of this post had been ‘tīng bù dǒng’. I asked the him to repeat what he had said and the second time I at least caught the whole sentence and focused on some of the key words but I still had NO context – I actually had no idea what he had said to me. Also, I had not initiated the conversation on this occasion so I guess this didn’t help the situation either.

At this point I switched to English, and asked him to explain what he had said in English. He gave me a brief but helpful run-down. It turned out he was saying ‘wǒ yī yuè huí guó.’ (我 一月回国 / I’ll return to my country in January). I mean honestly – seriously – it’s a five word sentence and it’s all stuff that I know – something I reckon I know how to say in my sleep. I am so embarrassed that I still find myself in a ‘ting bu dong’ boat like this with Mandarin stuff that I ALREADY KNOW – have known for quite a while. I’ve passed (written) exams on this???

The only difference and real improvement I’ve shown is I guess how I handled the situation – in the past I would normally have used the ‘ting bu dong’ phrase to END the conversation as I’d normally feel overwhelmed (like an idiot) and I would have wanted to get away from the akward situation.

Now I still have my ‘听不懂’ moments but my aim is to try and stay CALM – ask questions to understand (even if it is in English), ask them to repeat and I try not to feel like an idiot (at least not too much).

I stick around too to practice some Mandarin afterwards and after all of this the person I’m speaking would normally be very surprised that I can actually string a few words together to form a beautiful Mandarin sentence. I’ll admit – it’s at moments like these when I see them slightly surprised – that I feel just a teensy bit satisfied with myself.

Sometimes studying Mandarin feels like a lost case and other times it is the most rewarding journey ever. I honestly hate the fact that I get flustered and have to say ‘ting bu dong’ when my listening skills and ability is poor. Other times I revel in the fact that I learned one crucial important word to use in the language or the fact that I am still progressing in Heisig.

Ah Mandarin – what a roller-coaster ride you give me…

Useful vocab?

Roller coaster: 过山车 / guòshānchē
听不懂 / ‘Tīng bù dǒng’ (literally listen not understand)
lǎobǎn (老板) = boss; shopkeeper; proprietor

Learning Mandarin Chinese: Finding Inspiration

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: ,

I started studying Mandarin part-time in the latter half of 2006 and finished three semester modules by the end of 2007. 2008 was a gap year spent in China teaching English at a dàxué (大学). During that year I studied little to nothing. I was “applying” what I had learned before in everyday situations – a rewarding experience in all.

In 2009 I moved from China to NZ and well… immigration can leave you feeling a bit drained – at least it did for me. Mandarin was put on the back burner. Life (and the process and stress of immigrating to another country) got in the way.

So my studies done through an online distance education university, UNISA, had given me a good enough grip on tones, some basic vocabulary and basic Chinese survival skills to figure out what I needed to say to get the message across in China when I needed to get stuff done. For example, I was able to book a taxi, buy and order food, have ‘where I am from’ conversations, buy train tickets etc. without needing to carry with me any materials for quick reference.

However a few years down the line and I couldn’t get myself to look at my old study materials again – I didn’t want to do any revision to get back into it. I was actually dreading it. I’m not suggesting that the UNISA course wasn’t good – it was great but something was just missing for me. As my students in China would have said – I needed some “fresh” materials. (Some background: they used the word fresh for everything until I asked them “how fresh is the word ‘fresh’ after reading it 20 times in the same paper?”)

For the first time in two and a half years – I feel inspired to take up my studies again – and continue on with new vigour.

  • Creating this blog and spending the time to get the design look and feel right was my first step towards getting back into it – it was my first commitment.
  • Signing up to Twitter was another (@PeckishLaowai if you’d like to follow me).
  • I wanted to meet like-minded people for inspiration – which I think I have.

I guess as with any relationship, it (learning Mandarin) takes work, curiosity and open-mindedness to diversity to keep that flame of interest alive. If you don’t, it flickers away especially when dealing with the pressures of daily life and then you end up realising later that you’ve lost that spark / energy for this thing you’re supposed to ENJOY! Sounds like a real relationship, right?

Now, I have turned purely to the web instead where I’ve sourced new material and tools and “connected” with people that find themselves in the same boat as me – trying to “conquer” (ooh this is a big word – too big in fact) the language in whatever way possible, at some level or another. Best of all – is that I now stay in touch with other people’s experiences and also their teachings via their blogs and Twitter. Knowing that I am not alone in my struggle – is actually rather comforting.

I’m taking from others what they’ve found useful and giving it a go myself. E.g.:

  • Signing up on (I have tendencies to shun mainstream stuff, hence haven’t tried this before)
  • I give my listening skills some practice by following ‘Growing Up in Chinese’ (成长汉语), a series of short 15 minutes episodes presented by Charlotte MacInnis on CCTV
  • Studying Characters using stories and imagination (yes truly and the book is “Remembering Simplified Hanzi: Book 1, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters”). (Thanks for recommendation inspirational new mentor).
  • Using Flashcards (I am using but there are many alternatives on the web – just Google…).

I can honestly say that simply introducing new material / combining different methods and sources has actually been really refreshing and has gotten me interested and excited again.

None of these things I’m trying at the moment are truly unconventional / radically new (except perhaps the Heisig method) – most of them are just different ways / tactics to supplement your studies – but that’s the point – keep your interest alive and stay curious by introducing FRESH stuff :)

So I leave you with this thought – do not get stuck in your ways when studying – be open-minded and try new things – you have nothing to lose. Lastly, look to others for their wisdom and listen to what they have to share – you might just benefit from it.

Follow me @PeckishLaowai if you wish to stay in touch else subscribe to this blog via the RSS button in the navigation.

Mandarin around the world… You say Guóyǔ, I say Pǔtōnghuà

peckishlaowai Posted in Learning Mandarin,Tags: , , , ,

As far as I know it’s important to be aware of the different regional names / words that exist when referring to Mandarin – and even better to know which one to use when speaking to Chinese people from different countries. Certainly, here in New Zealand, it is useful to know, as I meet Chinese immigrants from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China.

I think you’re very likely to offend a Taiwanese, if you asked them whether they speak Pǔtōnghuà and vice versa likely to offend a mainland Chinese if you asked them whether they speak Guóyǔ. (Yes I realise we’re speaking of one and the same language – minus the accent and perhaps “slight” regional differences.)

Anyway, to start with it’s important to know a little bit about those countries where Mandarin Chinese is an official language:

  • China (the People’s Republic of China) Zhōngguó (中国; 中國)
  • Taiwan (Republic of China) Táiwān (台湾;台灣)
  • Singapore Xīnjiāpō (新加坡) (one of the four official languages)

In China (including Hong Kong special administrative region & Macau:

Mandarin is known as Pǔtōnghuà (Simplified 普通话 ; Traditional普通話)

Meaning: common speech (of the Chinese language)

Cantonese is largely spoken in Hong Kong, thus I suspect there is a Cantonese word for Mandarin that may be more prevalent than the Mandarin word Pǔtōnghuà when referring to Mandarin. Any corrections on this would naturally be welcome…


Mandarin is known as Guóyǔ; (Simplified Chinese: 国语; Traditional Chinese: 國語)

Meaning: national language’

Singapore & Malasia:

Mandarin is known as Huáyǔ; (Simplified Chinese: 华语; Traditional Chinese: 華語)

Meaning: Chinese language (in a cultural sense).

I suspect it may be kosher to refer to Putonghua when speaking to a Singaporean, but I still think it’s best to refer to Mandarin as Huáyǔ when speaking to a Singaporean or Malaysian Chinese simply because it is the word they themselves are more likely to use (and I guess therefore would be more respectful).

Zhōngguó huà (中国话) and Zhōngwén (中文)

These two words can also be used to refer to Mandarin. However the difference between these two is that

Zhōngguó huà refers only to spoken language i.e words e.g.

Wǒ huì shuō zhōngguó huà


Zhōngwén (中文) refers to the Chinese Language in the sense of both the spoken and written language:

wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén


With the latter, you’re stating that you’re learning both how to speak Chinese as well as write it.

Hànyǔ (汉语 / 漢語)

Of this one, I’m not entirely sure at all – it seems that Hànyǔ is very much interchangeably used with Zhongwen, however this may not always be the case and I don’t know whether there are any exceptions.

It also seems that Hànyǔ is the preferred option for academic / educational purposes. Most courses refer to Mandarin as Hànyǔ and not Pǔtōnghuà

Apparently, 汉语also refers to the language spoken by the Han nationality, i.e. Pǔtōnghuà the standard contemporary Chinese language.

Well, I hope this is just slightly useful. I still need to do some more research into the last one and see if I can find anything more concrete…