Chinese Corner

Learning Chinese

FAQ and tips for those seeking to study Mandarin

We're back from summer break, and in anticipation of the new academic year to come (albeit a socially-distanced one for much of the world) we're giving some tips on Chinese learning. Whether you're looking to pick up Chinese, or brush it up, here are some pointers. – Alec Ash

First things first. How long will it take me to learn Chinese?

If you are living in China, two years full-time study is enough to get good conversational Chinese from scratch, as well as basic reading and writing. That is, you will be able to hold a conversation about pretty much any non-specialist topic, as well as write and read texts and emails – i.e. you can operate in Chinese, albeit awkwardly. Even part-time study for a couple of years in China will give you a good enough foundation to build on with self-study after. If you’re learning outside of China, double that time to get the same results. Being immersed in the language environment is a huge boon.


Chinese Corner

What’s in a name?

The case for and against weird names in China – Eveline Chao

Nominal Determinism is the notion that your name determines your destiny. The idea dates back to the times of ancient philosophy and adds a whiff of fatalism to, say, meeting a woodworker surnamed Carpenter, or reading about Amy Winehouse’s alcoholism. It also ties into debates in the US about whether African Americans should avoid giving their children names like Da’Quan or Shaneequa that are stereotyped as indicative of low socioeconomic status. Studies have found that teachers expect students with such names to do poorly in school, and that such treatment translates to precisely that outcome. People with stigmatized names also experience more hiring discrimination.

In an ideal world, people should feel free to choose any name they like (except maybe those white parents in New Jersey who named their baby “Adolf Hitler”). But perhaps it’s a sense that names determine destiny that has compelled so many Asian immigrant parents in the U.S. to choose safe, “all-American” names for their kids, like Michael or Stephanie. (An Asian-American named Grace Lee even made a movie that touches on this phenomenon, called “The Grace Lee Project,” after noticing the prevalence of other Grace Lees out there.) Behind these names lies an instinct to help your kid assimilate quickly so they can succeed in American society.

Chinese Corner

How Not to Accidentally Call Yourself a *@#$!

Corporate naming adventures in China – Eveline Chao

The annals of international marketing are filled with tales of spectacular cross-cultural name fails – a Ford car called the Pinto, for example, which turned out to be Brazilian Portugese slang for “penis.” Coming up with no name for foreign markets can be risky too. Facebook has no Chinese name, so transliterations have sprung up organically. One of them, 非死不可 fēisǐbùkě, means “must die.”

Enter Lexicon Branding. This small company, a dozen people strong, in Sausalito, California, uses linguistics to name products. They’re famous for having named the BlackBerry, Swiffer, Febreze, Pentium, and PowerBook. Occasionally, their work involves Chinese. They sometimes develop Chinese renditions of brand names: 黑莓 hēiméi for BlackBerry, and 红五工作室 hóng wǔ gōngzuòshì for computer game company Red 5 Studios – or of services, such as 有问必答 yǒuwènbìdá for Q&A.

They also evaluate possible brand names to find out what they convey in various markets. Greg Alger, Lexicon’s in-house linguist, told me they recommended against pharmaceutical name Semtris in Cantonese-speaking markets because “it triggered a relatively strong association with 心醉時 sam tsui si, which would mean something like ‘time to get seriously drunk.’”

Chinese Corner

Classically Trained

Gladys Mac leaps into Jin Yong’s retro wuxia language

When I was in elementary school, my sister and I would stay up late on Saturday nights to watch TVB’s 1994 production of Legend of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), based on a novel by Jin Yong, the beloved writer of wǔxiá 武俠 (martial arts) fiction who passed away last year at the age of 94. The Los Angeles branch of the Hong Kong channel aired this drama at midnight – we would watch two episodes before going to bed at 2 am, quite the commitment from the under-ten set. This drama reran a couple times in later years, and each time my sister and I would watch it as eagerly as we had the first. Sometimes it aired on weekend afternoons, and once on weekday afternoons during summer vacation. We scheduled our plans around the show in order to catch every episode. Many versions of this drama were produced in the following years, but none of them are as fun and fast paced as the 1994 version.

Chinese Corner

At Dim Sum, Don’t Forget the Tea

Rosalyn Shih tells us what to pair with the classic Cantonese cuisine

When Hong Kong locals invite you out, they never say, "Let's go for a beer." Instead they “treat you to drinking tea” (cing2 nei5 jam2 caa4 請你飲茶).What they really mean is that they’re taking you to dim sum (dim2 sam1 點心).

The Cantonese phrase jam2 caa4 飲茶 or “to drink tea” – not to be confused with the Mandarin phrase hē chá 喝茶, a euphemism for being interrogated by the police – is synonymous with having dim sum. Although Hong Kongers emulate the global cosmopolitan by preferring chilled water at Western restaurants, they still require lots of hot tea to help the BBQ pork buns go down and aid the digestion of fried spring rolls. There is probably nothing I associate more with Hong Kong than the smells of starchy tablecloths and the earthy brew of pou2 lei5 普洱 – commonly known by its Mandarin name pǔ'ěr – floating over the din of family friends enthusiastically shouting at each other across tables.