Chinese Language Blog

Wingin’ It Posted by on Jul 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

Learning Mandarin Chinese, especially as a native English speaker, is doubly difficult because you’re learning both a new phonetic system (pinyin) and a new alphabet  in the form of characters. It becomes a lesson in duality as both right and left brain are active when learning pictograms and their corresponding pronunciation and tones. But unlike alphabetized languages, which build from a foundation of limited characters and logic, Chinese is not so simple, as there are thousands upon thousands of unique characters with different meaning and different pronunciation at your disposal.

Sometimes I stumble across a character that I have no idea its meaning. Sure I may recognize parts of the characters which are called radicals, but that doesn’t give me the full picture. For example: taking the word 明天 (míng tiān), which means tomorrow, and focusing on the first character, we see that 明 is a combination of 日, meaning sun or day, and 月,meaning month or moon. Now if you didn’t recognize that character, but recognize the radical, you’d have some idea of its meaning. Taking a guess, you’d figure that it has the radicals for sun and moon in it, so it most likely relates to a date, so you’ve got half of the word down.

But notice how this information, while shedding light on the meaning of the word, does not help you out with the pronunciation of the word. This is where Chinese becomes very difficult as a non-native speaker and is the main reason why foreigners have trouble primarily with tones. You either know it, or you don’t. Sure sometimes a radical will help you out with the pinyin if you get lucky, but odds are it won’t help you at all with the tones.

So how do you get over this rather difficult hump in your Chinese learning? Other than practice and rote memorization, you are pretty much on your own. You can try learning how to use a Chinese dictionary, which relies upon radicals, number of strokes and order, but learning that is like learning a new language in itself–and very slow going at that. My advice: wing it. You’d be surprised at how many words you can fake/fumble your way through, and still be understood.

Chinese is a very logical language, especially when regarding modern era words (relating to the last two centuries). “Make fly machine” is airplane, or 飞机, mótuōchē is motor bike, and even proper names can come close to their English meaning or pronunciation. For example, Hillary Clinton is 希拉里·克林顿 (Xīlālǐ·Kèlíndùn). Sound pretty spot on? The trick is learning the pinyin pronunciation and training your brain and tongue to pronounce Chinese sounds. After which you can take a guess, replacing English sounds with Chinese ones and boom, you just faked your way through a language. It’s not exact, but it gets you in the ball park.

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.


  1. Jessica:

    This is true sometimes. My personal favourite is yīntèwǎng = internet. If you know ‘wang’ means net (which makes perfect sense once you’ve seen the character) then the rest is easily guessed.

    And then of course there are internet bars which are called wǎngbā. So pretty straight forward.

    Although I’ve learnt the hard way that you can’t ‘wing it’ through everything…

  2. Peter Simon:

    An important area of learning, yes. But not always so easy, especially when you already know something quite similar to a new bit. What if you know FIRST that xīlà (希腊) means Greece (ok, the second character is different, but do you hear that? and that 里 means in something? The Xilali you hear doesn’t remind you of Hillary at all then. Such points of misunderstanding are more usual to find than to the contrary. Besides, if somebody doesn’t speak English, it’s quite difficult to find a usable dictionary at all, say, in Serbian, or Estonian.

  3. Steve:

    You’re both right–wingin’ it can backfire in the most epic ways possible (getting lost in Shanghai with with a crazy cabbie, buying yogurt when you thought it was milk, or simply saying the wrong thing to to your boss). For some reason though, I find that over time you pick up on a natural cadence of the language, along with a logic that keeps you in the loop (at least somewhat).

    It’s a good last resort, which I find myself relying upon more often than not in China.

    Thanks for following!

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