Pronunciation Despair and Chǎo miàn

Language learning should be practical, enjoyable and accessible in order to foster any real development toward the path to fluency.

Am I truly on that path to “fluency”? That’s a little too early to say. What I can say is that, in this present moment, I am certainly not anywhere close to even reaching a conversational level in Mandarin Chinese.

My main problem is one I’ve mentioned before. I keep memorizing (useful) vocabulary words and short phrases, which I thought was a good thing. I usually study my Chinese book when I’m out and about – at a coffee shop, on the metro, on a lunch break at work. Because I’m away from a computer at those times, I often haven’t been listening to the book’s corresponding audio files.

So my pronunciation is still way off. It’s those damn four tones, which I still have a terrible time distinguishing between when I’m listening to Chinese.

Yesterday I reached a fairly obvious conclusion: I need a Chinese teacher.

I thought I would be able to get by using online resources, my Chinese book and through the powers of brute memorization and repetition. But what’s the point of spending so much time on something if the end result (my pronunciation – basically, my powers of communication) isn’t even comprehensible?

That may be why, when recently given a chā (fork) at a local restaurant, the fúwùyuán (waiter) did not immediately understand when I asked for kuàizi (chopsticks) instead.

My pronunciation of basic food words (coincidentally, the subject of week 2, lesson 3) is decent because they happen to be the words I’ve used the most in practice. I can also decipher these words when people speak to me, as well. That may not seem like a big deal, but Chinese speakers tend speak incredibly quickly, and often with a dialect that varies from standard Mandarin.

Using words like shuǐguǒ (fruit – the translation is closer to “water fruit”), shūcài (vegetables), yú (fish), ròu (meat), tang (soup) and, of course the staples miàntiáo and mǐfàn (noodles and rice) is almost becoming second nature.

I’m fairly confident that my pronunciation of chǎo (fried) is correct. This, by the way, is one word Chinese food-eating foreigners may already be familiar with. Do you happen to enjoy eating Chow Mein, the stir fried noodle dish ubiquitous to Chinese restaurants?

The familiar Chow Mein

Chow Mein (stirfried noodles)= chǎo miàn in pinyin. The pronunication of “chow” and “chao” in this context is almost the same.

So I’ve known how to ask for chǎo miàn or chǎo mǐfàn for quite some time. However, this week I’ve learned the words zhǔ (boiled) and zhēng (steamed), which will be useful for inquiring about where I can find my preferred style of dumpling (my favorite’s are Zhēng but in Shanghai locals seem to favor chǎo ).

I’m not a vegetarian, but if I decide to make that leap I can now tell the world that Wǒ shì yīgè sùshízhě (I am a vegetarian). And yes, the main reason I decided to add that world to my arsenal is definitely because it has “sushi” in it.

Week 2, Day 2: zǎocān, wǔcān, wǎncān

I finally learned how to distinguish between breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Right now, I am having zǎocān(breakfast). This afternoon, I’ll have wǔcān(lunch). I think I’ll go to my local xinjiang cāntīng (restaurant) and chī(eat) xīhóngshì jīdàn fàn (egg, tomato and rice). Unike in Měiguó, (the USA) where I’d eat with a chā (fork), in Zhōngguó (China) I usually use kuàizi (chopsticks).

I don’t have any plans for wǎncān (dinner) yet.

I’m going to tell the truth: I don’t actually try to remember every single phrase in this book. When trying to learn a new language, it’s best to begin with words and phrases that you may plausibly use in your every day life. In my case, my “daily Chinese” usually only consists of basic interactions at restaurants, coffee shops, random street encounters and, sometimes, communicating with my landlord (Again, I’m an English teacher, so when I’m with Chinese speakers I’m typically encouraging them to only speak English).

There really isn’t a likely occasion where I’ll need to ask for a non-smoking table. I’ll focuses on memorizing more personally useful phrases.

Anyway, my point: China now has a public ban on smoking in public places. Why does this matter? Well, for me, it matters because I’m probably not going to be in a situation where someone asks me if I want a Xīyān huò fēi xīyān biǎo (smoking or non-smoking table?). So I’m probably not going to spend time trying to remember that one. Not now, at least.

As an ESL teacher, I always encourage students to focus on vocabulary and language they are going to use in every day life – for business, chatting, traveling, etc. Repetition of a word or phrase, in the context of a real-life situation, is the key to processing and storing information.

In some small way, I suppose that I’m now learning that myself.

Week 2, Day 1″Qǐng wǒ xiǎng yīgè sānmíngzhì”

Week 2, Day 1 starts with a subject I’m quite familiar with: Coffee.

My attempts to practice Mandarin Chinese in my every day life continue, even as I fail to actually update recollections of those attempts in a timely manner.

The first day of Chinese Learning “Week 2” began with a subject I know my way around fairly well, due to caffeine addiction: Ordering libations in a coffee shop.

Coffee shops (Kāfēi diàn) can be found in abundance in Shanghai: Starbucks and Costa Coffee reign, but there are plenty of cute café’s and lounges around for people who would prefer to not sit inside noisy and constantly-packed chain establishment (In China, it’s acceptable – or at least, passively accepted – for patrons to buy one coffee and then sit down and occupy a table all day long. Needless to say, it’s often difficult to find a seat.)

Western-style coffee shops are more difficult to find outside of first or second-tier cities. Outside of those areas, Chinese-style coffee houses (chá guàn) are more prevalent. From what I remember in Jinan, they were more like restaurants and tended to focus on tea rather than coffee.
Hence the vocabulary for the first day of week 2: I can now order three varieties of tea, instead of my usual request: Chá (just “tea”. No specification.)

I usually prefer Lǜchá (green tea), but I also like the occasional cup of hóngchá as well (red tea, a tasty and similarly caffeinated alternative to green tea). I don’t really enjoy mòlìhuā chá, but I suppose it’s still good to know the word (Jasmine tea).

This is the best word I learned this morning: sānmíngzhì
It’s a food item. If you had three guesses, you could probably guess the food item, because it sounds rather similar to the English word – sandwich.

I love noodles (miàn), rice (mǐfàn), dumplings (jJiǎozi) and all of the delicious and readily available varieties of Chinese food available in my neighborhood. But what can I say, I’m still an American girl at heart, and I really love my sānmíngzhì. Especially if it’s a zǎocān sānmíngzhì breakfast sandwich (breakfast sandwich).

Although I’ve known how to order food for about as long as I’ve lived in China, I’ve always relied on using the form Wǒ yào… (I want coffee! I want dumplings!) Now I know how to politely say, Qǐng wǒ xiǎng hē bēi kāfēi (I’d like a cup of coffee, please).

Now, excuse me while I go out and order a sandwich.

“Week one” learning round up


Okay – it’s taken me longer than one week to get around to posting my “week one” 15-minute Chinese roundup. Which some could say totally defeats the purpose of using the guide – it relies on daily, 15-minute practice sessions – at all.

I can’t really argue with that; what I can say is that, while I’m behind schedule, I’ve gotten pretty damn good at the small part that I have studied so far. So yeah… look out world, I can now totally inquire whether Nǐ yǒu háizi ma (Do you have children?) and about the identities of various family members ( Zhè shì nǐ de fùqīn= Is this your father? Zhè shì nǐ de zhàngfū/qīzi ma = Is this your husband/wife?)

I tried to fit in some real-life practice today at my local Starbucks (yes, I’m a yuppie who cannot forgo coffee, no matter where I am in the world) by pointing to a nearby employee and then asking my barista,  (Nà shì nǐ de péngyǒu ma” (Is that your friend?). I think she was extremely confused by my curiosity (why does this strange American girl care if I’m friends with my coworker…?) but she said “yes” and proceeded to give me my change. She responded to my question in English.

I want to practice my limited Mandarin speaking skills with native speakers. The problem is, many Chinese people also want to practice their limited English with native English speakers. Leading to many, many situations where I begin some kind of transaction in Mandarin, and the shopkeeper/barista/waiter/whatever responds to all of my comments and inquiries in English.

This, of course, does not happen everywhere in China. But foreigners – and with that, the English language – have a strong presence in Shanghai, a special economic zone that’s flush with international business. I would say that about 75 percent of my students at the language training center I work for are trying to improve their English either because they work at a foreign-run company or because they aspire to work for a foreign-run company.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of English speakers in China. Fun fact: English is actually a standard part of China’s education curriculum. Chinese students begin learning English in elementary school and some knowledge of the language is essential for passing the gaokao, the ultra-competitive standardized test taken by millions of high school students each year.

However, Chinese-led English classes tend to focus on reading and vocabulary memorization. There is usually little-to-no speaking practice, and many students graduate without being able to verbally string together a sentence more complex than “My name is ____”

So we don’t know how many people in China are really proficient in English. What we do know is that there are about 300 million English learners in the country, the evidence of which can be seen in any major city: advertisements for English learning centers (including the one I work for) are inescapable.


There are about 1.39 billion native Chinese speakers. Although Mandarin is the countries official dialect, there are several alternative dialects and micro-languages in use across the expansive country. (The Washington Post)

Anyone browsing ESL job listings knows that the English-learning trend isn’t solely centered in China. About 1.5 billion people around the world are studying English, according to an analysis from the University of Dusseldorf featured in a report by The Washington Post. And while China may have the highest native-speaker population in the world, the same analysis concluded that only about 30 million people are actively learning the language (China’s official state language in Mandarin, but as the chart above shows, there are several prominent dialects in the country).


Chinese Learning: Phase Three


The Chinese language is nothing like the English language.

Well, maybe that’s not true. There is exactly one thing about Chinese that is similar to English: sentence word order. Simple Chinese sentences often have the same structure as English sentences – subject, verb, object. For example, “I want a cup of coffee” directly translates to “Wǒ yào yībē Kāfēi– word for word, it’s still “I want coffee.” Similarly, “I have two apples”= “Wǒ yǒu liǎng gè píngguǒ” and “I love you” is “Wǒ ài nǐ.”

So sentence word order – that’s okay. It’s just everything else that’s completely different.

My Chinese studies have occurred in phases. Phase one began when I moved to Jinan, Shangdong in early 2014 on whim, without fully realizing that this third-tier city was not a popular home for English-speaking expats. It was (unlike Shanghai) a completely foreign experience, one that I am so grateful for and reflect on fondly. It also forced me to learn basic vocabulary (greetings, numbers, food, directions for taxi drivers…) just so I could function in society.

Side note: I was offered introductory Chinese lessons by my employer in Jinan, which I accepted. The lessons consisted of a university-aged girl repeatedly asking me, “What do you want to know?” Um, I don’t know… how to communicate.

Phase two began during my first months in Shanghai, when I started to take real Chinese classes at a language training school. Although the classes focused on much of the vocabulary that I had picked up in Jinan, it’s emphasis on pronunciation was enlightening because it made me realize that theoretically knowing a word in Chinese is almost worthless unless you know how to say the word.

Pronunciation is key. Word tone is key.

Mandarin Chinese has four tone markers that affect the way a word is pronounced. Two words may have the same pinyin spelling, but their meanings could be completely different depending on the tone marker. Example: Mā (mama) and Mǎ (horse).

Pinyin – the official romanization of Chinese characters — attaches different pronunciation to certain letters. X is pronounced as “sh”; C is “ts”; Z is “ds” (as in the end of the word kids); Q is “ch” and the ZH combination is pronounced as “j”.

Back to the phases. Phase three is now and currently involves my lovely guide, “15-minute Chinese.” Now I know a lot of language guides end up being about as useful as a paperweight, but this one is laid out in a way that makes it easy for the user memorize vocabulary and review material. It also comes with an audio track to help with tricky pronunciation – a constant problem.

(Photo 1) The book’s cover flap can be used to hide the Chinese pinyin, so users can test themselves on vocabulary.  (Photo 2) Each section begins with a warm up to review the previous days’ lesson.

Week one, as you can see, focuses on introductions – greetings, information about relatives and simple sentences. A lot of the early material is already known to me, but I’m going to follow the guide as it is. And I did learn two new phrases from lesson one:

Hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐ (Nice to meet you!)

Míngtiān jiàn (See you tomorrow!).

So there you go, world… Hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐ. Míngtiān jiàn!

The Problem: I live in China, and my Chinese speaking ability is laughable.

Living in China was supposed to be a convenient, almost inevitable way of soaking up a language that is so completely different from my native English.

But almost two years after leaving the United States for a “temporary” experience across the world, I’ve learned a pretty consistent truth: The Chinese language skills of most English-speaking expats rarely extends outside of basic necessities, such as “Hello; “Thank you”, “I don’t understand” and “I want coffee/beer”.

I should know. I’m one of those expats.

I’m a writer and present day English teacher in Shanghai, China, My job, teaching and practicing the English language to mostly 25-to-40 year-old adults, is evidence of the multiplying connections between China and the West. Many of my students either work or aspire to work for foreign-run companies, most of which require basic English skills for local staff.

In what is sometimes a pretty stark contrast, many job opportunities for foreigners (particularly native English speakers) require absolutely no knowledge of the Chinese language. Even though we’re living in China.

To be fair, Shanghai — like many large cities in China– caters itself well to English-speaking visitors. Street signs are in English; shop names and information are always translated into English; restaurant menus are available in English. The metro line announces stops in both Chinese and English. There are multiple English-language city guides and news sources online, such as the popular sites Time Out and SmartShanghai.

In a throwback to Shanghai’s city structure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — where the city was split into foreign-run American, British and French concessions — modern-stay Shanghai contains multiple “foreign” neighborhoods. These areas are littered with the trendy cafe’s, restaurants, bars and globally recognizable brand stores (H&M, Gap, Zara, Sephora…. the list goes on and on) that let westerners like me feel perfectly at home.

Here’s where I live – People’s Square, right at the heart of the city’s downtown.


((photo via the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition)

Long story short: As a result of a combination of endless convenience, laziness and working in a completely English environment, my Mandarin speaking skills barely qualify as “basic” It essentially consists of the following:

Hello!  Ní hǎo

How are you?  Ní hǎo ma

I’m good! I’m not good!  Wǒ hěn hǎo/ Wǒ hěn bù hǎoI

know/I don’t know   Wǒ zhīdào/ Wǒ bù zhīdào

I am American     Wǒ shì měiguó rén

I am an English teacher  Wǒ shì yīngyǔ lǎoshī

My Chinese is not good   Wǒ de zhōngguó bù hǎo

Are you American?   Nǐ shì měiguó rén ma?

How is your Chinese?  Zěnme shì nín de zhōngguó?

I’m sorry!  Duìbùqǐ

Thank you! Xièxiè

No problem!  Méi wèntí

I am your American friend. You are my Chinese friend.  Wǒ shì nǐ dì měiguó péngyǒu. Nǐ shì wǒ de zhōngguó péngyǒu.

Where is…? Nǎlǐ ma

What time?  Jǐ diǎn

I want…Wǒ yào

I have…Wǒ yǒu

I like…Xǐhuān

This one   Zhège

I’m hungry  Wǒ èle

I’m full  Wǒ chī bǎole

I’m happy  Wǒ hěn kāixīn

Complemented by vocabulary such as: numbers 1-100 (Yī ,èr, sān…), apple (Píngguǒ), mango (Mángguǒ),rice (fàn), noodles (miàn), egg (jīdàn), tomato (fānqié), dumplings (jiǎozi), pork (zhūròu), chicken (jīròu), beef (niúròu), coffee (kāfēi), beer (píjiǔ), chocolate (qiǎokèlì),people (rén), America (Měiguó), China (Zhōngguó), France (Fàguó), England (Yīngguó), Thailand (Tàiguó), Canada (Jiānádà),north (běi), south (nán),east (dōng),west (xī)

Yeah… no meaningful intellectual breakthroughs are happening at this level. I’m hoping that is going to change.

I\m on a journey to improve my Chinese language skills so I can actually communicate on a higher level than announcing my nationality and credentials (My usual speech upon meeting a new person can be translated as, “Hello! My name is Ashley. I am American. I am an English teacher. How are you? I’m sorry, my Chinese is bad.”)

In this blog, I will document my efforts to become more conversant. Along the way, I’d like to share photos, stories and news about China, globalization and my life as an American woman living in the most populated neighborhood of one of the most populated cities in the most populated country on Earth.