Archive for August, 2010

Hindi is like Japanese

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

When an Indian speaks Englsih and retain their accent, they tend to say say “Vaat iis diss?” instead of “What is this?”.  We all know that.

Meanwhile, the Japanese says “Wa-te is-se di-su?”  We all know that too.

So how can someone say Hindi is like Japanese?

You see – the Hindi alphabet works using the same concept as Japanese: One character represents one sound – and the languages are written exactly like how they sound.  If you can pronounce every character in Hindi, you should be able to learn the sound of Japanese pretty easily.

Let me show you more by romanzing Hindi sounds – let’s see how many sounds there are in Hindi that starts with ‘k’ and let’s look at those in Japanese:

Hindi: ke ka ki kee ku kri ke kae ko kaw

Japanese: ka ki ku ke ko

Basically, what you need to learn to pronounce in Japanese is a subset of what there is in Hindi.  But of course, a Hindi speaker may get uncomfortable with how there are so few vowels in Japanese and start to accidentally add in the rest of the Indian sounds into Japanese.

Come, let’s just watch a video of an Indian lady speaking good Japanese.  She’s really good (come on – it’s a speech competition in Japanese), but yes, you can hear the sounds of the Indian vowels coming out (e.g. somewhere between the 23rd and 25th second: onaaji instead of onaji).

Nothing wrong with that, but I just wanted to illustrate some observations to you.  The nature of the Hindi language is also probably why the Hindi speaking person has their own accents in English – they lengthen or shorten their vowels based on a different intuition compared to the American or British speaker.

[Ok caveat – I don’t know if the lady speaks Hindi natively, but many Indian languages follow a concept similar enough, and Hindi is more or less the common Indian language.  Was trying to illustrate my point~]

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The importance of ‘rice’ in the Chinese language

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Do you know how important the word ‘rice’ is in Chinese?

It’s so important there’re two words for it: one to describe it in its raw state (米 – mi3), and one to describe it in its cooked state: (饭 – fan4).

And it’s so important that you form idioms with it: “生米煮成熟饭” (sheng1 mi3 zhu3 cheng2 shu2 fan4)

This means that you have changed raw rice into cooked rice – this idiom  is used to describe an irreversible process.

Usually it is used to indirectly describe the situation of a girl being pregnant before she is married.  (Can you believe the Chinese use the analogy of cooking rice to describe that lol!)

And that’s not all – there are many other words to describe the other forms of rice -> 粥,炊 , 糜 etc.

I’ll leave you to figure out what these mean.

Hmm… so why did I write this post?

Because in my other blog I talked about “The Rise (rice) of Asia”.

Hope you liked it!

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How to impress native speakers of the foreign language you’re learning

August 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Imagine you found yourself to be in these scenarios.  I’d say you’d be pretty amazed if:

  • You are a Chinese in Mainland China.  You see a Caucasian, and suddenly he asks you for directions in clear Mandarin.
  • You are a Vietnamese student in London, having dinner at a nearby fast food joint.  An African starts to speak Vietnamese to you fluently in the same restaurant you’re eating in.
  • You are a German backpacking in Korea. A random Asian guy you meet in the hostel says a long sentence in German such as, “Achso, du bist aus Deutschland.  Also vor 3 Jahren war ich auch Student da!”

So how can we amaze foreigners who travel to our country with our knowledge of their language?

Honestly, most of the time when you actually discover that someone is a foreigner who speaks the foreign language you are learning, it’s by asking this really simple question: “Where are you from?”

My suggestion is: When you find out someone is from the ‘target’ country that speaks your foreign language, say this in the foreign language you are learning: “Wow!!  You’re from Country X?  Actually now I’m in the process of learning *English*.  What are you doing here?”

Here’s an example in German, Spanish, and Mandarin for your consideration:

“Achso!  Du bist aus Deutschland?  Im Moment lerne ich Deutsch.  So, was machst du hier heute eigentlich?”

“De verdad, eres de Espana?  Ahora estoy aprendido espanol!  Pues, que haces hoy aqui?”


You may not be able to speak any more of the lanugage, but your mastery of this sentence will demonstrate your effort.  You can caveat next by saying “Ok, that’s all I know in your language… maybe you can teach me more!”

But at the very least, you’ve probably made a new friend. 😀

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Some things about English that native speakers do not consciously know…

August 28, 2010 Leave a comment

As speakers of English, we are often confused by the lack of vowels in some other languages.  For instance, “Kyrgyzstan” -> how the hell do you pronounce that???  It probably just looks like “kerrrrrrstan” to most English speakers.

But guess what, we confuse the hell out of non-native speakers too.  (And most of us do not know these consciously.)  Let me give you some examples to illustrate my point:

Consider the word ‘world’.

It’s really pronounced as ‘werrr-rerld’, as if there were another vowel between ‘r’ and ‘ld’.

But someone trying to learn English would not be able to understand that.  Especially speakers of languages like Turkish, Japanese, Chinese etc., where every syllable consists of a vowel.  And in the romanized versions of these languages, the vowels are all explicitly spelt out!

Consider the word ‘will’.

It’s supposed to sound more like ‘wee-ill’, but many non-native speakers tend to say ‘wil’.

Honestly, we can find many more examples -> and this goes to show that either:

1) 26 letters in the alphabet is not enough to describe all the sounds in a language

2) we actually have a really bad correlation between the way our words are spelt and the way they are said

So really, if English is not your first language, and you have trouble understanding the pronunciation, try this trick: there might be ‘hidden vowels’ in many words.  Try to read a word assuming that there’s a hidden vowel sometimes.  You may discover that hey, I’m able to sound more correct now!

And if you have a friend who does not speak English as the first language, try helping him or her to pronounce the word ‘world’.  I think he or she will be grateful to you. 😀

So… anyone has more examples of these oddities in English? 😀

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First useful words to learn in a foreign language…

August 28, 2010 Leave a comment

… depends on how old you are!

A toddler can’t tell the difference between language A and language B consciously, so there’s no point for him to learn “How do you say ‘XXX’ in English”.  Instead there’s always the danger of the toddler doing things to accidentally hurt himself or herself, so it’s more useful to teach the toddler the foreign equivalents of simple words like “Daddy” and “Mummy” and “help” so that he or she can sound out when hurt or in danger.

Meanwhile, an adult who learns “Hola” in Spanish can only say hi to a new Spanish-speaking friend using that and then feel awkward for the lack of words to continue the conversation.  Instead, it might be better to learn the foreign language equivalent of these questions e.g. “How do you pronounce / say / write this in language X” and “I didn’t understand.  Could you repeat?” and “I’ve got a question.  What does this word mean?”  These are questions that can help you to pick up the language more quickly.

Finally, a professor or high ranking official needs to maintain his position of authority and cannot be seen to ‘not know’ anything, so if they speak in a foreign language, they need to already be extremely fluent in it.  So the first useful words for them is probably an entire speech about thermodynamics or the country’s economy.

For me, I also recommend learning how to ask questions to which you already know the answers in terms of content.  For instance, now that I am in Singapore, “What is your impression about Singapore?”.  (e.g. In German: “Was ist dein Eindruck von Singapur”, In Mandarin: 你对新加坡的映像怎样?) is a very important question to ask my foreign friends whom I meet here 😀  You will probably already expect some of their answers.  While you leave it open to them to answer it in their language, you can probably pick up new expressions as they describe what they think to you.  And you can be sure that most of the time, it’s not just a yes or no answer if you’re sincere about it 😀

So what are some of the first words you would learn in a foreign language?

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Sandra Bullock speaks German! :D [Learn some German along with the video]

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Learn German!  It’s spoken by really nice people like… Sandra Bullock!

Anyway, in the 41st – 45th seconds, we learn that Sandra Bullock was once a:

“Kellnerin” = waitress

“Putzfrau” = cleaner (lady)

“Discotaenzerin” = disco dancer

Hope you’ve had a good time picking up some words here.

Notice how she says “Dann war ich X” three consecutive times.  You can see if you can incorporate such a way of speaking German too.  It’s simple, useful for telling a little story about yourself, and it makes your German sound natural and fluent too. 😀

And notice how she uses the words ‘aber’, and ‘mal’ throughout.  These are also words that ‘soften’ and ‘naturalize’ her German.

What do you think?

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How we were taught to learn Chinese

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Foreigners who are learning Mandarin must be curious how the native speakers learned it.  After all, if we are all so good at it, and we did some of it at school, there must be something that we did that worked, which could work for you!

So here goes:

1. For us, every day we had to do ‘writing practice’.  We learned 5 new words everyday, and wrote them 10 times each.

2. Every week, there was a ‘spelling’ test.  A teacher read out the words, and you had to know the meaning from hearing the words, and then be able to write it out.

3. We read poems.  In addition to getting our tones right, we got the melody of the language right.

4. The teacher explained very similar words all the time.  e.g. the word ‘ask’ is 问, but it could be coupled with a lot of other words such as 盘,访,追 etc., and each becomes a different way of asking.  For instance:

盘问 means ‘probe + ask’ = to interrogate.

访问 means to ‘visit + ask’ = to interview.

追问 means ‘chase + ask’ = to badger.

She explained the meaning of 盘,访, 追 so that we understood how it modified the meaning of the word 问.

5. Making sentences.  We had to construct sentences with new words.  This improved our intuitive sense of the grammar.  Simple sentences were ok, as long as the new words made sense in the sentence.

But more than that, I have five essential tips for you:

1. Honestly, the first thing you have to do is to forget about the alphabet when learning Chinese, because there isn’t one.

2. The second thing is to accept the fact that you have to learn about 1,000 words before you can speak, read, or write anything meaningfully.  So you have to be extremely patient.  Start with the knowledge in mind that you will be hardly able to do much with the language until 2 years later.

3.  Read my post about tonal languages.  Compare the ‘tones’ to music, and you will find it easier.

4.  Look at the objects around you.  Table, chair, spoon, fork, chopsticks, knife, plates, books.  Learn how to say them in Chinese, and practice the pronunciation.  Get used to the fact that they are made up of one to three words.  That each word is monosyllabic.

5.  Understand that this is the same for many Asian languages: Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese etc.  Just because we’ve been speaking English and other European languages all this while doesn’t mean that other language systems don’t exist.  Knowing that lots of people have similar systems probably helps to realize that it’s not as uncommon as you think.  It’s just foreign! 😀

Ok, I hope these tips help.  Happy learning Chinese!

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