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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Parable of Zen – Seeking a Cure for Baldness

There was a bald man whose head felt very cold in winter. But in summer, he always got bitten by mosquitoes on the head and found it hard to get a good night’s sleep. He was very trouble by this problem, but there was nothing he could do about it.

One day he heard about a famous physician who cured many difficult diseases and solved many problems. He decided to consult him.

He traveled for days and finally met this famous physician. This Physician was dressed in very plain clothes and wearing a hat.

The bald man came up and said to the physician: “Doctor, please cure me of baldness.”

The physician looked at him and replied sadly: “If I had a cure for baldness, I would have cured myself first.” And he removed his hat and showed his own bald head.

The conclusion from the Zen master: Fellow sufferers of the same illness empathize with each other.

The conclusion from April after she read the parable: Famous people don’t always have answers.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Is It Too Late to Learn Chinese?

When the humorist Dave Barry went to Japan in the early 1990s, he attempted to learn the language by reading a paperback phrase book, Japanese at a Glance, on the flight over. "That is not the method recommended by experts," he wrote. "The method recommended by experts is to be born a Japanese baby and raised by a Japanese family, in Japan."

The language of the moment is Chinese, and the expert advice is depressingly similar.

Difficult--but not impossible. In some areas, such as vocabulary memorization, older students can actually outperform younger peers. "Adults shouldn't say 'I'm too old to learn,'" says Long. "All over the world, millions of people have become extremely good in a second language, even when they started in their 30s and 40s." You can't expect to soak up Chinese like a sponge, but you do have the ability to concentrate and to study for hours on end. Unfortunately, if you want to learn Chinese, that's what you'll need to do.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Learning Tips During Holiday

Have you ever packed your Mandarin Express books into your suitcase but didn’t read them? Have you taken your iPod loaded with audio lessons to the beach but didn’t listen to them? As the holiday season draws closer, many people will have a two week school break. They are determined to stay on the learning track during the break, only to find out that they haven’t done any studying at all.

The problem here is that they set their expectations too high. They think they can block an hour each day devoted to learning Chinese, but often find themselves involved in something else all the time. That’s where they fail. But often enough, after the holiday, they regret it. The worst is that they feel that they have forgotten everything. They felt they should have done at least a little bit of studying, if not a lot.

What can you do? Don’t even try to block one hour for learning. You’re not at school any more. Just dedicate a few minutes instead. It’s easier to spend a few minutes during your morning coffee than to try blocking one hour from everything else. Here is how you can do it.

There is no need to pack your students book and workbook. They are heavy and you won’t read them anyway. Instead, prepare a short vocabulary list which you think is important. For example, select a few key words from each lesson, and build a nice one- page vocabulary list containing about 30 – 50 words. During your holiday, use a few minutes during your breakfast to review these key words and try to recall what the lesson is about. You can have a quick mental review of one lesson during a cup of coffee.

Second, write a journal in Chinese or partially Chinese. Even the briefest journal will keep your Chinese active. Spend a few minutes and write some words, phrases about your daily activities or people you meet. This journal will not only help you learn Chinese, but also serve as a wonderful souvenir after your holiday.

Third, listen to your audio lessons while you’re sleeping. Some experts say that your brain continues to function and be more receptive when you’re sound asleep. And this is the best time to learn subconsciously. You may not realize it after you wake up, but your learning is already there.

Now armed with these wonderful learning tips, you’ll never “forget everything” during your holiday any more.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Things You Can Do Amid the Economic Downturn

The stock market is down. The housing market is down. People are losing their jobs. Newspapers, full of these staggering headlines are sinking people’s already desperate feelings even lower. However, there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. For hard working, prudently saving people, this economic downturn provides opportunities for things they can do now, but wouldn’t even consider a year ago.

Holiday season is approaching. We all want to stretch our dollars. What is a better way than buying good quality stuff? Shops and stores are discounting their inventory to lure customers in. The higher end brands are hit hard by this credit crunch. And they are giving 50% or even more discounts in the effort to recoup some severe losses. That is a good opportunity for people to get their hands on some good stuff. Good quality clothes, shoes and furniture will certainly last longer than the recession. And you’ll feel good when using them.

Real estate prices are expected by many to fall in the coming year, it could be a good time to buy property. When zero interest is on the horizon, buying when the market is down looks really attractive. We can expect the housing market to finally turn around in three to five years. By then, you have already made millions of dollars.

Many Business schools and vocational schools in the U.S. have reported that this year their application rates have gone up. That is because many people have chosen to improve themselves during this economic downturn, and when things are good again, they come out better and stronger. There is always a new subject to study. You can study for a degree, or you can learn a new language.

Don’t get so beaten up by all the sensational news. Explore the opportunities presented by the crisis. Right now, the economy is a lemon, make some lemonade!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

China and Chinese – Quotes from Ideas by Watson

The Greek name for the Chinese was Seres, from which the Latin word serica derives, meaning silk. The writer Pliny was just one who railed against the luxurious indulgences of his stylish contemporaries, complaining that enormous quantities of Chinese silk had entered Rome. Chinese textiles traveled west along the Silk Roads from at least 1200 BC because, until AD200, or thereabouts, only the Chinese knew how to process silkworms.

As this implies, by medieval times, the most intellectually sophisticated country in the world, and the most technologically advanced, was China.

The Chinese had writings as early as the Shang Dynasty (1765 - 1045BC). These consisted of animal bones or tortoise-shells which had been cracked with red-hot pokers, for the purposes of divination, and on which written characters had been inscribed, interpreting the cracks in the bones. This practice gradually gave way to books made of bamboo slips. These were bound together with strings or thongs.

Confucius himself used books of this kind when he was studying the I Ching and he was apparently so earnest a pupil, so hard on his books, that he broke the thong three times.

Silk sometimes replaced bamboo – it was lighter, stronger, more resilient, and it could be wrapped around a rod, saving space. In this way, the Chinese word for ‘roll’ became the word for ‘book’.

With the coming of paper, so the invention of printing was not far behind. Printing raises the issue of writing and language.

Chinese language doesn’t possess an alphabet; instead it consisted of thousands of different characters.

Although there are many dialects of Chinese, Mandarin – the native tongue of north China – comprises about 70 per cent of what is spoken today. All its characters are monosyllabic. Moreover, there are only about 420 syllables in Mandarin, as compared with 1200 in English. Therefore, there are many characters, words pronounced using the same sound or syllable. To obtain the diversity of meaning that is needed, all syllables may be pronounced in different tones: high, high-rising, high-falling, low-dipping. For example, there are forty-one characters with the same pronunciation of yi in the fourth tone, including ‘easy’, ‘righteousness’, ‘difference’ and ‘art’. Meaning must be inferred from context.

And in Chinese, words do not change according to number, gender, cases, tenses, voice or mood. Relationships are indicated either by word order or the use of auxiliary words. Take for example this sentence as it would be delivered in Chinese: ‘Yesterday he give I two literature revolution book.’ ‘Yesterday’ indicates that ‘give’ means ‘gave’. Word order indicates that ‘I’ means me, and ‘two’ indicates that ‘book’ means ‘books’. The word order also indicates that ‘literature revolution’ means ‘literary revolution’ and not ‘revolutionary literature’. And so the full sentence means ‘Yesterday he gave me two books on [the] literary revolution.’

In the same way that the Chinese language is based on a different set of ideas from the Indo-European languages, so its script is very different from the Western alphabets. It recalls much more the early pictographs used in Mesopotamia at the birth of writing. All Chinese dialects use the same script, on which others such as Korean and Japanese are based.

These various aspects of Chinese language and script have had a major influence on Chinese thought. There is not only the pictorial quality of the characters themselves, but the various tones in which words are pronounced, which in particular, for example, give Chinese poetry added elements or dimensions that are quite lacking in Western languages.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Top 10 credit crunch jokes

It's time for a laugh! From Hannah Wood at Top 10 credit crunch jokes to have you laughing all the way to the bank

1) I went to the ATM this morning and it said "insufficient funds"..

I'm wondering is it them or me?

2) Petrol is way too expensive these days. I actually can't afford to drive.

Last time I went dogging, I had to ask my mum to give me a lift.

3) With the current market turmoil, what's the easiest way to make a small fortune?

Start off with a large one.
4) How do you define optimism?

A banker who irons five shirts on a Sunday

Monday, October 27, 2008

Three Men and the God of Language Learning

There were three men working for the same company who decided to take a class and learn Mandarin. And they were blessed by the God of Language Learning. The God of Language Learning granted them each a wish.

The first man said: “I’d like to be very smart and be able to understand all the rules of grammar and pronunciation so they will come to me very easily.” The God of Language Learning said: “Done!”

The second man said: “I’d like to be surrounded by lots of native Mandarin speakers as friends. And they will be very willing to help me master Mandarin.” The God of Language Learning said: “Done!”

The third man said: “Please grant me determination to help me carry on when I’m very tired and tempted to do other things or when I get distracted.” The God of Language Learning said: “Done!”

So these three men went to class twice a week. And they worked hard and even took on additional assignments.

The performance of the first man in the class was spectacular. Nothing was difficult to him. He had native-like pronunciation, mastering the tough ones like zh, ch, sh, r, j, q, x in a split second. And all the grammar was easy. The teacher taught him even more advanced grammar like when to move the object in front of the verb. He understood it instantly and could even make a few sentences.

The second man and the third man did just like were average students in the class. They tried and they practiced. There were things they understood well, and there were things not so well.

But the Second man had lots of Chinese friends who were more than willing to help him. When he learned how to say “ni hao. Ni jiao shenme mingzi?” His friends hurriedly explained several other possible ways to greet people and ask their names, and went along to explain how to address different people based on their relationship and different customs and habits in different regions in China. When he learned how to ask “cesuo zai nar?”, his friends hurriedly explained any possible names Chinese could name their toilets and jokes associated with them.

The third man would just go home, review his textbooks, do his homework, listen to the recordings and spend 30 minutes a day learning vocabulary. There were times he wasn’t very much in the mood to study, and there were times he was tempted to do other things, but he carried on. He was blessed with determination.

Two months later, the first man dropped out of the class. He did so well in the class and hardly spent anytime outside of the classroom studying. Although he could understand and comprehend quickly, he had a great deal of trouble retaining and using what he learned so he was soon overwhelmed by it all. He dropped out.

Three months later, the second man had to constantly hide from all his Chinese friends to get any studying done. He was overwhelmed by all the suggestions they made and all the tips they wanted to give him, when he just wanted to practice with them what he learned in class. He quit class eventually because wherever he went, his friends would find him and wouldn’t leave him in peace.

The third man carried on. After he finished the first module, he signed up for the second. A year later, he could talk easily with most Chinese people. He was happy with his result. And he truly thanked the God of Language Learning for blessing him with determination. In language learning, nothing else really mattered.

The moral of this story is: In learning a language, brilliance on grammar and pronunciation will fade out. Helpful friends will make matters worse. What can bring success and satisfaction is determination.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is It Still Good to Learn Mandarin in the Middle of an Economic Downturn?

It all started in the summer of 2007. Suddenly, things become gloomier and gloomier. The house markets in many countries went into a long decline. The stock markets in general have evaporated huge amount of wealth. And China couldn’t keep herself out of the trouble either.

Is it still good to learn Mandarin? After all, one of the major reasons why people want to learn Mandarin is to do business in China. But the reality shows us many companies and factories in China have closed down largely due to this economic slow down or recession in the world.

Is this Mandarin learning boom (or fad) over? I don't think so. If learning Mandarin was ever a bubble because of the booming Chinese economy during past years, slowing down economy might provide the best opportunities of learning for those who want to be prepared.

Still, tough time is coming for all of us and it requires tough decisions. We don’t know how long this recession is going to last and how deep it will affect us. Does one want to huddle in the shelter and worry about when the things will turn up, or does one find the courage and continue to learn to prepare for a better time in the future?

A simple conclusion would be: No matter what happens, learn our way out.

Website Re-branded

Once in a while, something needs changing. This time it is the main website. The site has grown out of its old name, and now re-branded into

It's a better site and easier to navigate and explore the huge amount of information that it hosts.

So, update your bookmarks. The old one will soon become a broken link.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Listening Comprehension

Over the years, I found out that a mark of big improvement over learning a language, is not how fluent you speak, is how well you understand while you are listening.

Can you tell the underlining message under different tones? Can you spot a pun when you hear it? Can you tell the different subtle choices of small words?

Those abilities can show how good a person has come to. Well, in the end, we are meant to listen more. We have two ears, but one mouth.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Get Real!

A couple of days ago, I came across somebody saying:"Learning Mandarin is really easy, as long as you can tell the differences between the four tones." Then he went on and did a demonstration of how the four tones sound like. Apparently, for him, even though he is still yet to manage a simple conversation, he already believes that Mandarin is under his belt.

I really want to tell him:"Get Real! It's not an easy stroll down the park!" But out of politeness, I only said something like: "It's actually very difficult. Be able to tell the four tones is nice, but the difficult stuff is yet to come."

Whoever is broadcasting this "simple" language view is being irresponsible. It's so much like the sub prime mortgage borrowers. They don't know what lies ahead of them. If anyone heads into learning Mandarin because of this, he is behaving like an irresponsible learner. The weight, the stress and the complexity will soon crash him out of the learning path.

What is learning Mandarin really like? It's like running a marathon in a very beautiful place. The road under your feet is winding and bumpy and full of obstacles. But as long as you are making the effort on the way, you will be immensely rewarded. The most breath taking scenery will unfold itself. Flying angels will bestow their best wishes on you. It's a path of realizing your potential and doing what you can do with a great amount of effort. 

Get real and don't be tricked into learning Mandarin under a false perspective. Be very well prepared.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bird Watchers

Bird watchers have trained their ears by listening over and over again to recordings of bird songs, comparing and contrasting until very subtle differences become apparent.

A great deal of research shows that the ear must be trained to hear just as carefully as the eye to see.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


It's interesting to see how English manipulate letters to create a kind of accent. For example:

'ee 'ees goodlooking, innit?

Well, you certainly can't do the same thing to Chinese. Instead, you have to manipulate words to reflect that. For example:

"他很好看。" can be said in following ways:


They all express the same thing, but also represent a certain accent departed from standard Chinese.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Take a natural approach, learning speaking first

Chinese characters have very special characteristic and charisma and often draw people from everywhere in the world to learn them.

Unfortunately, learning Chinese characters is like everything else: practiced by many, mastered by few. A sheer number of characters and the time needed to maintain them active are often obstacles. This is especially true for people who learn characters as their tools to learn speaking. Speaking ability often get drawn back by the limitation of characters.

A natural approach will work much better. Use pinyin to get started with speaking first, and after a certain fluency achieved, start learning reading and writing characters.

Every serious Chinese learners should learn reading and writing. It's just the path one chooses makes quite impact on how enjoyable the learning journey is. If you want to stick to something longer, sometimes choose an easier path will help. Make small incremental improvement over the time beats try to leap a obstacle made of 1000 characters.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The level of podcast

Occasionally I found discussions on which level my podcasts ( are. Most people categorized them as pre-intermediate to upper-intermediate.

I would rather categorize them as real life issue expressed in simple language. Why make things so complicated when you can make them nice and easy, and moreover, easy to understand? I have seen no reason to do so, especially when I'm trying to break a stubborn pattern held among many that vocabulary is everything.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Chinese spirit

The devastating earthquake happened last month is starting to fade out from people's attention. This year is full of disasters happening everywhere.

What I am really touched and proud of is Chinese spirit. People don't just sit there and feel sorry for themselves. It's the self-reliance action that people took shows how different Chinese people are.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Strong body, Weak mind

There are always something that we want. It could be speaking putonghua really well, or getting that lean, trim and muscular body, or playing piano beautifully, or being a golf master, etc, etc.

There are somebody out there already doing that. Why can't this person be me? If you only got one single reason, like you have speech recognition problem and that keeps you from speaking putonghua well, or you have curved fingers that keeps you from playing a musical instrument, you are indeed couldn't be this person. There's no coulda, shoulda, woulda there. If you can come up with a thousand reasons why this person is not you, you belong to the category of strong body with weak mind.

It's your weak mind sabotage you all the time. While your body is capable of doing something, but your mind can't.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chinese Characters


This can be the pride of all Chinese people and all people who can read and write Chinese characters!

Monday, May 12, 2008

It's nice to learn from a young age

When it comes to languages, one hears that it's good to learn from a young age. When it comes to musical instrument, one hears that it's good to learn from a young age. It's almost certain that a young person has great advantages in learning new things.

That's the reason why I've seen a increasing number of kids running around from classes to classes. Apart from their normal school, they have additional curriculum. Monday, piano lesson. Tuesday, dancing lesson. Wednesday, Chinese lesson. Thursday, French lesson. Saturday, homework tutoring. Sunday, off.

It looks to me that learning at a young can be a double edged sword. On one hand, this kind of busy children will have a head start in lots of things that can make their adult life more competitive. On the other hand, this kind of busy children don't have childhood that they will cherish and love, and that may not lead to a competitive adult life. They would probably spend all their time playing toy trains.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The 2nd best time of learning

The first best time of learning a language is during childhood. At that time, learning is a duty; learning is a responsibility. The sad thing is that we only have one childhood per person. There is not enough to go around. And when it's over, it's over.

The 2nd best time of learning is the rest of one's life. However it's plagued with other duties and responsibilities, like work, family, inflation, and house, etc. Learning is very difficult to carry on.

Don't fail this second chance, because there isn't any left after this.

Friday, April 25, 2008

If you travelled around the World 100 years ago

如果你可以在一百年前就进行环球自助旅行, 那你肯定是幸福的,因为那时还没有“全球化”,所有国家的建筑都具有浓厚的本民族特色。譬如你到了越南的河内,看到的就是越式风情;到东京,看到的就是和式建筑。不论到哪一个国家与民族,他们穿的衣服和城市的建筑都有着很鲜明的民族特色。这时你看到的是一个完整的、承传自身文化的国家,没有外来文化的杂质,整座城市,不论是传统建筑,还是人民身上的服饰,其文化的协调性都很强,可以想象那真是一种属于本民族的极致美学的画面。

The above is quoted from a magazine article 《做有质感的民族》. Unfortunately, even 100 years ago, you would not be able to see a pure culture. All the cultures are connected with one another in one way or another.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What is Business Chinese?

I have seen some Business Chinese books. They all talk about trading, buying, selling and bargaining. What happened to other businesses? My guess is that people in other businesses do not need to learn Chinese. Or, those Business Chinese books should be tossed to the nearest waste basket.

There is no so called Business Chinese. There is Chinese and some business terms.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Can't Find Chinese Fortune Cookies in a Chinese Restaurant in China

Things can be so different after traveling overseas. For example, Chinese food.

So many people living outside of China think that fortune cookies are an essential part of Chinese food. But when they come to China and eat in a Chinese restaurant, they never find them.

The question is: Where can you taste the most authentic Chinese food? In Chinese restaurants outside of China, or in Chinese restaurants in China? They are quite different things, mind you!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Writing is an Idea

Quote from Ideas A History From Fire To Freud by Peter Watson:

Writing is an idea, a very important idea, which was invented before 3000 BC. Today, however, we tend not to regard letters or words as inventions, as we do computers or mobile phones, because they have been so long with us. But inventions are evidence of ideas. I have treated language an an idea, because language reflects the way that people think, and the ways in which languages differ characterize the social and intellectual history of different populations. In addition, most ideas are conceived in language. Thus I consider th history and structure of the world's most intellectually influential languages: Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin, French and English.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Do you know why people don't understand you

After said something about the possible reasons of why you don't understand other people, it's time to say the other way: why people don't understand you.

Successful communications take two ways. For a Mandarin Chinese learner, it's not uncommon that they tried so hard to say something, and that something didn't get across to the other end at all. I have witnessed countless times when this happened. It's very discouraging to any learners indeed.

Most people will naturally point it out that it's the pronunciation that fails the learners. Especially Mandarin, a radically different language, has so many different sounds, and so tonal. However, from my observation, this is the last thing between you and your listeners. There are other things far more important. Here are my three points listed in order of importance:

1) Language structure and habit
2) How to use the vocab you know to say something you don't know
3) Your accent (pronunciation)

Most people get tumbled on the first point when they think it's everything but. For instance, one person wanted to order water in a restaurant. He learned that water is "shui" with the third tone. So he told the waitress: "shui3." And the waitress looked all confused and didn't understand what he wanted. It's not that he said anything wrong. It's that he didn't know when Chinese people order water they wouldn't only say "shui3" as a westerner would do in a western restaurant. Chinese people tend to say a bit more like: "yi ping kuang quan shui", or "yi bei shui", or "yi bei re shui", or something shui.

The second point baffled so many people. One common complain is that "I don't have enough vocab." Probably nobody will ever have enough vocab even for native speakers. The trick is that as a second language speaker one needs to change some speaking patterns that he is so used to as a first language speaker. If you don't know how to say "Don't hurry.", you can say "We have time" (wo men you shi jian.) instead. For those diligent students, they will look up a dictionary and find hurry as "gan jin 赶紧", or "cang cu 仓促", etc. But then they tend to fall in the first catch of neglecting structure or habit and say something like: bu cang cu. And that will not get your meaning across.

The last part that may hinder people understand you is your accent (pronunciation). If you have taken care of the first and second points, you are fine most of the time. If you know "don't hurry" is "bie zhao ji 别着急", you can assure that people will understand you even you say the phrase in a quite different accent. A person from Qing Dao will say "bie zhao ji" quite differently from a person from Luo Yang. And you, just add some flavor to hundreds of different accents that Chinese people already have, get a quite nice and distinctive Spanish accent, German accent, or English accent. No big deal.

Now it's time to think what is the real thing that stands between you and a smooth communication.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

You Need to Know Why You Don't Understand People

If I ask 10 people this question: Do you think why you don't understand when you are talking to Chinese people?
It's a safe bet that I'll get one answer: It's the vocabulary. I need to learn more vocabulary.

Vocabulary certainly is a barrier, but it is one only for beginners. There are people who have learned Chinese for years, and accumulate vast amount of vocabulary. But when in real life, they still get lost quite quickly.

In fact you face three barriers:
1- vocabulary and sentence patterns
2- talking speed
3- accent

The first one is the easiest one to solve. You can employ many different methods. The end result is to remember certain words and sentence patterns. It's also the reason why learning reading and writing is easier than learning listening and speaking. When in reading and writing, your brain has time to recollect your memory, and if you have done your homework well you will find it easy to learn reading and writing. Although it's the easiest one to accomplish, memorizing large amount of vocab and grammar patterns can still be a daunting task.

The second one is not so easy to tackle. And most of the time, it's speaking speed that hinders your understanding. You have no time to reflect and it's already over. You need to have rigorous training on listening until a foreign sound becomes so familiar and you can call it your second nature. It's not so easy. It requires hours and hours of listening training.

The third one is the most difficult. When you are out of your classroom and your standard tape recording, you face people with different accents. There are so many different accents out there. And those accents can really lost you. The good news is if this is the only reason why you don't understand, you can adapt to it fairly quickly.

In the end, that's just why there's so much fun in learning Chinese!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Want to ride a bus, anyone?

I stayed in Beijing for a week from Dec 26, 2007 to Jan 1, 2008.

It was a good time to visit Beijing, to appreciate the Forbidden City and the Great Wall in the cold and very windy winter. And indeed I saw plenty visitors from all over the world in those places. People speak all kinds of languages and some of foreign visitors can speak Chinese too.

But when I was outside of the tourist attractions, I saw no foreign visitors. When I was in a public bus, or when I was in a small neighborhood restaurant, or when I was in a local convenient store, I had no foreign visitor in sight! Where did they go? What did they do?

I sincerely hope that Beijing's attraction is beyond the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. And people (at least those who take Mandarin lessons) are courageous enough to explore some small wonders in the nearby neighborhoods, and can have the opportunity to see ordinary people's lives.