Mandarin Vocabulary – Week 16

I know some of my readers are curious not only about how much Mandarin I’m understanding—which I’ve commented on regularly and which I’ve made a graph about—but also about what type of vocabulary I’m picking up and consolidating. Therefore, I will dedicate this short post to giving a sample of the words and expressions that I’ve learned.

First, a couple of clarifications. I’m not studying written Chinese, nor pinyin. So the way I write words might seem silly and is probably inconsistent. It’s just whatever comes to my head as a rough way to transcribe the sounds into an English type of spelling.

Second, writing posts is absolutely the only time I write down words. My experiment does not include making any kind of notes. I do this solely for the purposes of my blog, not as part of the learning process (and believe it has a negligible impact on my learning).

Another third point I should reemphasize is that, since my experiment does not allow me to get feedback or check my learning with people who actually speak Chinese, please do not specifically try to teach or correct me in the comments. You can certainly give me an overall opinion of whether I’m doing well or poorly, just not get into specific words. This lack of feedback also means I might be making serious mistakes, but that’s fine and is part of the whole experiment (and the natural learning process).

In watching The Emperor and the Assassin, I learned the word sha, which means kill. With that knowledge, it was easy to understand the full sentence (which I’m really happy about), Wo pu sha nee, since I already knew Wo (I or me or my), pu (no or a general negative) and nee (you). Therefore, this extremely useful phrase (because I can say it to anyone and it might help me in a pinch haha) means I will not kill you. The verb tense was clear from context, and it seems to indicate that verbs are not conjugated in Mandarin (or not always).

I learned many weeks ago that Nee shi shey? means Who are you?, which brings me to a very important word, shi, which is the verb to be. For example, Wo shi Victor would mean I am Victor, or simply Shi wo would mean It’s me.

As suggested above, the pronoun wo seems to serve as a subject pronoun (I), object pronoun (me), and possessive pronoun (my). That is also the case for nee. These are among the first words I learned and have had ample opportunity to confirm and consolidate. Recently, I believe I have learned my third personal pronoun, which is of great importance. I’m still not entirely sure about it, but I believe that ta means he, she, and it.

Dandanmeans wait. Dandan wo means wait for me.

The most used word in Mandarin, with the possible exception of the personal pronouns and shi, seems to be hao, the very first word I learned, and which can have many translations, but is always positive—good, okay, great, beautiful, etc.

I know few verbs, but one very important one I’m pretty confident in is ba, which means go. One of the places I picked this up was from the Frozen song Let it Go, or Sui ta ba in Mandarin, but this of course would not have been sufficient, since I watched this song with my daughter in several languages that I speak, and the specific meaning of the refrain often varies. For example, in Brazilian Portuguese it’s sung as Livre estou or I am free, while in continental Portuguese it’s sung as Já passou or It’s already passed. However, I’ve heard the word ba in various other contexts that appear to confirm that it means go.

Another very important verb is to know. I believe it is (or can be) chi in Mandarin, but I’m not sure yet. And I do know the verb ai (pronounced like “I”), which means love, so that Wo ai nee means I love you.

A very important recent acquisition is ka, which means look or see. I usually can pick this out when used in the form Nee ka, which means Look! (literally, you look or you see).

I know the numbers from 1 to 10, and believe I can continue counting to at least 19.

I know the words for mom and dad, mama and baba, while mother and father are something like muzenand fuzen—the z may be closer to an r.

Sheygua means fruit, and while I watched a Qiao-hu video that teaches the names of several fruit, the only one that stuck so far was Moogua, which means papaya.

Pigu means butt. If I repeat the Qiao-hu video enough times, I should learn several other body parts.

A more useful word is Shie-shie, which means Thanks, to which nee can also be added (Thank you).

I believe lai means here (or in some cases there). La is a suffix added to many words. Lai la seems to mean various things, such as Come here, I’m coming, or Let’s go. Similarly, a is often as a suffix, such that Shey-a? seems to mean Who is it?

Because this list is not exhaustive, and I’m sure there are many words I know pretty well that I am not remembering right now, I can confidently say I have a fairly well consolidated vocabulary of 50 or more words. However, there are many additional words that I am in the process of learning. That means I have heard and understood them in one or more contexts, but need to hear them several more times in other contexts in order to (1) be sure I have gotten the meaning and connotations right and (2) “memorize” them so that I can readily pick them out (and, theoretically, would be able to use them in speaking, although this is not particularly relevant now since my project is exclusively listening).

If you add these words, I would say my fledgling or tentative vocabulary is closer to 100 or 150 words.

Is this good for 70 hours of study (exclusively viewing authentic videos)? Taken on its own, I would say it is not so good. In 70 hours, using word lists, I would guess that I could have truly memorized perhaps 400 words. Hypothetically, I could at that point start to watch videos, but with a larger vocabulary than I have now, and also have simple conversations.

However, that’s a rather poor comparison. The three main points to make are that, first, without the contexts, those words may not have been committed to as long-term memory as the words I’m learning through movies and other videos. Second, I would run the risk of developing a mental translation habit, which can be pernicious and in the long run make it extremely difficult to develop real fluency. Third, my learning is far from limited to this consciously acquired vocabulary. It includes a growing familiarity with the phonetics, cadence, tonality, and even cultural aspects that are relevant to language acquisition.

In sum, I feel good about my vocabulary acquisition, but I don’t think it or any other indicator is enough, at this early stage, to either begin to confirm or refute my hypothesis.

10 thoughts on “Mandarin Vocabulary – Week 16

  1. David says:

    Hi, I just found your blog today and have been reading all your posts with great joy. I have been learning Mandarin for almost one year now, in a more traditional way though, and I find your approach very interesting and am super excited to see your recent progress and the ones to come. With the words you have learned you are to a great extend right in their meaning – and for the ones you’re a little off I can see how you got to your conclusions … pretty interesting 🙂 I’ll definitely keep on reading! Keep up the good work! 🙂 加油!Greetings from Germany 😀

    • Hey David, I’m so happy you liked my blog and really appreciated your comments. Yes, though I can’t check my answers, so to speak, I will hopefully self-correct over time. For example, I initially heard “Dandan wo” when Vic the Logger was chasing after a train in the Boonie Bears movie I watched with my daughter. I presumed at the time that “Dandan” meant train! But subsequently I heard it in other contexts and now I believe it means wait, as in “Dandan wo” = “Wait for me” (previously I thought it meant “My train!” haha).

      I’d be very interested to know about your reasons for studying Mandarin, methods, and how it’s going for you.

      Please do visit and comment regularly! Thank you!

  2. Donaldo Hart says:

    As always, I read the blog with interest. But I~m not wholly sure I understand your reason for citing so many words if you don’t want correction. It’s confusing, but it seems David understands.

    • I think people who study Chinese may find it interesting. But for those who don’t, it probably is not. For me, it’s fun reflecting on what I’ve learned thus far and will be interesting to go back to in a few months or a year and see how my comprehension was at this time. In short, it’s a way of documenting progress.

  3. Greta Browne says:

    Very interesting to see what you’ve picked up – and to have another Mandarin student comment on your understanding of the words. My guess is that your learning will grow exponentially, since your ability to understand part of a sentence should help grasp more meanings. Good luck.

    • I hope so! I think there will be an inflection point, but it may be quite a ways away still: it may only occur when I’m understanding at least 25% of content, which may be a couple of years away. Right now, other than programming for toddlers (Qiao Hu) or when I have the benefit of subtitles, I’m still grasping at the occasional word, very rarely understanding a full phrase.

  4. David says:

    Hello, and thanks for the warm welcome! 🙂
    My reasons for studying Chinese are actually quite simple: Last year I have done an internship in Shanghai and Mandarin lessons were part of the internship program. After I had started I really enjoyed the language and decided to continue learning it. Also, I met a lot of new friends in China and wanted to communicate with them more easily. The third important reason is Mandarin’s growing influence and importance in the business world. As I am a Business major myself, it is particularly interesting for me and I am also playing with the idea of working and living in China in the future. With knowing the language I have more options. And last but not least, and in fact probably the biggest reason is, that I have a Chinese girlfriend and it is so much fun learning with her and speaking with her in Chinese 😀 She is also living in Germany and has been learning German for a few years and we’re constantly switching between English, German, and Chinese.
    The methods I have a pretty straight forward. I had lessons in China for 2 months, 2 semesters of Chinese in college, have been watching a lot of “teaching” videos on youtube and am doing a tandem program with a girl in China and my girlfriend 🙂
    That’s about it…

    • David, that’s great! And I think you have the best possible ingredient for successful language acquisition—a girlfriend who is a native speaker of your target language haha.

      With your multiple motivations and your mixed approach, I think you are on track to really learn, although judging from what other students of Mandarin say, I think that no matter what it is a long, hard road!

      Do you also watch some authentic videos? I think a daily dose of Qiao Hu would greatly enhance your learning.

      • David says:

        Oh yes, it is a hard and long road. Sometimes I think I made really good progress and then just a day later I feel I am at the level I had one month earlier. Without constant repetition our mind forgets so quickly…
        I do also watch authentic videos… I have watched some modern Chinese TV series and movies. Since are dedicated for a more adult audience, it is quite hard for me to understand. The subtitles help a lot in my case and I get used to the sound of the language but hearing and understanding I still have the biggest troubles with. I think I need to also start watching with covered up subtitles to get used to not having the help of subtitles.
        Haha in fact I have watched a couple of episodes of Qiao Hu… and it is probably a good idea to incorporate it into my daily routine 🙂

      • Hopefully my new Qiao Hu Study Guides will be of some use–although probably more for total beginners like me than for your level. Cheers!

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