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Enjune Zhang

3 things getting in your way to learn a foreign language


1. Afraid of making mistake

Don't be afraid to look stupid when you are trying to figure out something you are not familiar with. Dare to make expression and utter your voice even if you are basing on the wrong evidence. You may never know that you are wrong if you silence your opinion, your argument, your pronunciation, your writing style, your way of comprehension within your brain. Get them exposed and someone may jump out of nowhere to correct you, that's how you can boost your language skill and understanding of certain thing language related, whether your mistake is pointed out in a friendly way or not. Otherwise, you are stupid instead of looking stupid. It is quite normal that your pronunciation will sound strange and unnatural to native speakers. They could detect your atmosphere of foreign accent once you start with the greeting, and unfortunately what you are going to say next, anything different from what they deem normal and natural, could never escape their judgment. But it is not the reason to make you a mute. Keep speaking your way and make necessary adjustment as you know more about what will be the thing that gives you away, until one day you are next to perfect. Keep writing and posting in foreign language even if someone else keeps claiming that you are making things complicate or confusing to them but not in the way stubbornly clinging to your old habits. Maybe sometimes dignity and sense of shame may get in the way but you have to cut it loose and swallow the pain if you find that something does need improvement. And you do it for a better yourself. During adjustment, stick to your own view if you are not well persuaded even if you are not part of the overwhelming majority. Keep your own judgment and don't let it be navigated by bias or timidity of something not in line with you. If someone's claiming something isn't worth a try, you should be the one to test it and decide to be a follower or not. You just choose the same path or stay on your own way for your own sake.


2. Unwelcome things alien or different from you

We are born to seek ally and stand against the difference. Any voice not in the same tone with ours, we are likely to call it a noise. But learning and idea exchange is anti nature. We need to be brave enough to be different and tolerant enough to accept existence of different opinions. The real modesty is not solely presented to someone more professional than you but also an amateur, not someone showing their admiration to you but someone uttering a voice different from yours. Correct your pronunciation based on the way how the native speakers pronounce it and make it sound more native, but stick to your accent if it doesn't essentially prevent the others from understanding what you've said. Don't care too much about the uniqueness in accent, even native speakers have their accent inherited from local dialect to deal with. Keep it part of your pronunciation if it is not too strong to make yourself understood. 


3. Partial effort on input or output, orally or writtenly

He who is good at a language is a balancer, doing good in listening, speaking, reading and writing instead of blocking his potential to a certain aspect. Think about how it may have something to do with your spoken Chinese when you listen to the Chinese broadcast. Think about what you could read next when you see a bottleneck in your writing. Develop a nose for listening materials and reading materials, and make it output oriented. Spend related time to be a speaker, a listener, a writer and a reader during different time of a day.


Enjune Zhang



I have asked people learning Chinese as their foreign language what will be something puzzling them beside Pinyin, and 60% of them have idiom (成语) as answer.

Backed up by story and historical quotation, idioms frequently come in the form of four characters combination, based on the meaning of ancient Chinese, or extended meaning and metaphorical meaning of Chinese. It is a hard-to-crack case even for Chinese native speaks, let alone to mention the challenge they present to foreign friends.

I still remember the first material guiding me to Chinese idiom. It is not the dictionary but a picture book with cartoons vividly showing the background story of idiom. And that's probably the most frequently applied resource that open up a Chinese child's door to this special kind of wording culture-related. 

There will be many reasons why a certain idiom fails your comprehension, but most of them fall into the four mainly listed below. Elaboration is given based on 狼狈为奸 for example.


1. Not knowing the story behind it

Almost right behind each idiom lies a story, and some of them sound like a fable(寓言), containing the truth you need to know the idiom better. 狼 and 狈 pass a sheepfold and the sheep are attractive to them but out of reach. The fence is high for both of them. An idea occurs to狈, and he asks狼 to stand onto his shoulders so that狼could lay his hands to the sheep. And they get their meal by carrying out this plan. 狼狈为奸gives a description of this situation in brief wording. Both characters 狼&狈 appear at the beginning of the idiom, while 为奸means doing something evilly bad. So you know why it is stated as" act in collusion with each other "in the dictionary.



2. No comprehension based on classical Chinese

Idioms come from traditional Chinese culture, so ancient Chinese is involved beside modern Chinese. If you cannot figure it out based on the literal meaning applied nowadays, try the corresponding meaning in ancient Chinese. I bet you may wonder why 狼狈, describing an embarrassing and awkward situation, as it is shown in Pleco, would have something to do with 为奸. It may take you less time to see what 狼狈不堪 means, since the word狼狈here is consistent with what you are familiar with. That's it. 狼狈in 狼狈为奸means something different in ancient Chinese. 狼is wolf and 狈is a wolf-like animal. They refer to bad guys alike. Words in modern Chinese come in two-character form, so you may take为奸here as a unit instead of breaking it into two parts, 为and奸. Take a check in Pleco you may find the meanings are given respectively, which suggests that this is a combination of two parts, representing two separate meaning in ancient Chinese. 为=做=实施=do, 奸=奸邪之事=坏事=bad thing. The meaning could be around the corner if you take the words from the perspective of ancient Chinese, even if you don't know the story behind.



3. Things hardly existent in modern daily life

Something involved in the idiom could be rarely seen in daily life, and something is not even existent. It makes idioms more strange to non native speakers. 狈is the animal in tale only, so you would hardly know that it refers to someone next to the wolf in this idiomatic story,not a clue that it will be an executor 故事中的执行者 and subject 主语/主角 of the story.




4. Extended meaning and metaphor contained

Idioms act like a fable telling something more than the story itself. It involves meaning extended or implied. 狼狈为奸tells more than the story of how two evil animals snatch the sheep. 狼狈indicates the bad guys while stealing sheep could be extended to anything evil or illegal. Idioms are formed in detailed story but they are highly summerized and logically inducted, from the concrete to the abstract, from the particular case to the universal phenomena, available for analogy based on individual case arising from daily life. 成语是故事的高度概括与浓缩,归纳成一个道理,而我们对成语的运用则是基于日常个案的类比,借用成语形容类似的情况。The meaning implied or extended to fit in the summary universally applicable in daily circumstances makes idiom not straightforward enough to understand.


Enjune Zhang

8 Q&A ABOUT 七夕



1 Why is it called 七夕?

It is on July 7 lunar calendar, and the related activity worshiping Zhinv, the seventh daughters (织女/七姐)of the Queen of Heaven (王母娘娘), comes in the evening of this day. We call evening 夕(xi) in ancient Chinese. So it means a festival falling on the evening of July 7. And the legend of 织女 furthers the meaning of this custom and its connection with the number seven. 


2 Why does somebody regard it as Chinese Valentine?

As the myth goes, 织女 comes to the man's world (we call it 下凡) and falls in love with 牛郎. However, their love gets hindered by the parents of 织女, and the couple is forced to be apart, without any opportunity to meet each other except the date July 7, when the magpies (喜鹊) of the world gather to make the bridge across the milky way for them. 

It is said that 牛郎织女 will meet each other this day, which is a symbol of reunion of couples through the thick and thin, a reflection of 有情人终成眷属.


3 Is it really the Chinese Valentine?

Traditional Chinese Valentine is on Jan 15 lunar calendar, and it is lantern festival (正月十五:元宵节) too. Girls stay at home with no chance to meet the potential BF in ancient China, but their opportunity comes in lantern festival, when they are allowed to go out watch the lantern show (赏花灯) and have fun figuring out the lantern riddles (猜灯谜).  And that's when the single get to each other, so lantern festival works like the Valentine better than Qixi, when single girls just have fun on their own.


4 Why is it also called 乞巧节?

Being smart in mind and deft in handcraft (心灵手巧)is the best praise for girls in ancient China. It is a day when single girls ask that quality and ability from 织女. Zhinv is good at waving and capable of getting the fabric done next to perfect. Girls dressed up decently gather and worship the goddess with the handcraft they make, praying for the skillfulness like 织女 and a happy marriage like 牛郎织女. 


5 What did girls in ancient China do in Qixi Festival?

Worship 织女 with their handcraft. There will be a competition in handcraft, and girls are judged by their handwork, like embroidery, decorations knitted with beads, clay figurine, etc. as offerings.

Collect the dews to wash their hands and eyes. It is said that eyes will be clearer and hands will be more skillful and proficient with the craft after wash. Water is deemed blessed by 织女 on that day.

Wash their hair and dye their nails. Single girls do this as a way in seek of beautify and happy marriage. 


6 Why does ancient Chinese have a festival like this on July 7?

Initially, festival on July 7 has nothing to do with 牛郎织女, and it is just a day to worship time and nature. 七 is a special number in Chinese culture, which sounds similar to 吉.  It means lucky. July 7 could be deemed as double 吉, conforming to the Chinese saying 好事成双. China has several festivals like this, with the day in the same number as the month per lunar calendar, say, double five, May 5 as dragon boat day, double nine, Sep 9, Chongyang Festival.


7 Why is it a festival for single girls in ancient China?

It was originally a day for single girls to pray for all the best from 织女. Actually married female are fully occupied by family and kids and they are far away from those days when they gather to pray for a better self and the ideal marriage accordingly. Qixi provides a good timing for young girls to get together and discuss what they are longing for.


8 Why do people store water or go swimming that day as a custom?

It is said that 织女 comes down for a bath in the river that day and the water is blessed. People believe that water fetched in a certain period of time is magically good for human body. 

Enjune Zhang



It takes listening, speaking, reading and writing to make a language complete, and listening is always the hardest part to crack. Compared with reading and writing, you have limited time to react, without any possibility to go over a certain wording for times the way you do when reading. Moreover, reading doesn't involve pronunciation and sometimes you may find that you understand what's been said once you have the script of the listening materials. What'll be said and the way it sounds, the speed it takes depend on the person leading the conversation, and the uncertainty of content, accent and pace make listening harder than spoken Chinese. 

Conclusion above is based on the assumption that the degree of complexity stays the same. Characteristics of Chinese below make you need more time to figure out the content orally expressed, and further the uncertainty of Chinese listening. 


1 Different characters in the same pronunciation

There are several characters sharing the same Pinyin, and you have no idea what's talked about without connecting it to the words around it or putting it in the context. You won't see the difference about 气, 器, 弃 since they sound the same. And you have no idea which of the following is mentioned here, 中指, 终止or 中止if "zhong zhi" is all you hear. Such a high frequency in application of same pronunciation makes Chinese confusing to foreign speakers. Therefore, memorizing the characters in words, and minding how the certain word match with the other (collocation) mean a lot to improvement of Chinese listening skill.


2 Standard Mandarin challenged by dialects

Not every Chinese speaks standard Mandarin like the host or hostess in broadcast. Unfortunately, people living in different areas of China have a lifelong battle against their dialect's negative impact on Mandarin pronunciation. This could be a huge influence since Chinese dialects vary a lot from each other. You know the English is speaking English even if he has accent, but you don't know the Chinese is speaking Mandarin if he sounds much too dialect influenced. However, it's not the reason that you could slack off in practicing standard Mandarin. On the contrary, you should be familiar with Mandarin pronunciation to know which pronunciation is likely to be influenced by dialect and how it is affected, so you could realize which character is about even if it is not pronounced in perfect Mandarin. Be well prepared with the Mandarin blending with several dialect, so you are not losing confidence when you doesn't sound good for the moment, and you won't be too shocked when some Chinese disappoint you with their pronunciation far from perfect.


3 Pronunciation in monosyllable with tones unfamiliar to non native speakers

Characters are pronounced in monosyllable no matter how long its Pinyin seems to be. 

Each character is pronounced separatedly, like water drops falling down to hit the ground one by one, different from liaison in English, which sounds like a river flowing forward. Say each Chinese character independently without lengthening the sound or make them connect to each other. That's the way how Chinese is spoken, and familiar with such a style in pronunciation does matter to your listening. It is true that some Chinese students claim that the listening materials in English test will be easier to understand if the announcers making the audio tape speak English the way they do, pronouncing each t, d, k at the end of each vocabulary clearly, without consonant at the end of a word connecting to the vowel at the beginning of next word. Be familiar with the pronunciation rules and style of a language does smooth the process of listening comprehension. We may understand in seconds if our own pronunciation is identical with how native Chinese people speak Chinese.


4 Wording out of range

There are words you seldom come across in text book or literature reading, and you are likely to get trapped if they show up in the conversation. Make yourself exposed to 成语, 谚语, 歇后语, 网络热词, 双关语, etc, and listen to conversation or materials with topics close to daily life. I am not recommending CCTV news but you could try it if it is not boring to you. Documentary in CCTV 9 will be good choice but go get some refreshment before it makes you doze off. TV shows recording how people are asked to finish the tasks or introducing you to something worth your attention or place worth visiting (综艺节目, 游记, 美食节目) are easy for you to cling to and follow through. The more you don't understand, the more you need to practice listening. We didn't understand most of our parents' conversations when we were around two or three, but we still listened until we learned enough to comprehend what's been said. Therefore, do not say no to listening material because you understand little about it. Try and you may find even if you can't tell the meaning of a word you are still getting familiar with the way Chinese is spoken, how Chinese people describe things and what kind of wording they choose. It is a process of accumulation hidden but may see its meaning as you proceed with and finally make what you've heard part of your wordings.

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