A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

你好! Learning Chinese #1

In my little Chinese Trilogy I will share with you my thoughts about learning Chinese, the difficulties, the curiosities, the surprises and what I can already read and understand when I go into Chinatown.

But first a little introduction …

! Frederike !

… which means something like “Hello, everyone! I am Frederike, and my Chinese name is Fei Fan (非凡)!” – Yes, we all got a Chinese name and mine is especially cool, because 非凡 means something like “not ordinary” or “not of the material world”! 😀

I am studying “International Studies” at Leiden University, Campus The Hague and for my second semester, I had to specialize in an area in the world and start learning a matching language for that region. I chose East Asia and I decided to start to with Mandarin.

Since February now, I have 3 Chinese classes every week – though it sounds very nerdy, I have to make the confession that I am already really into it. Although I would say that Chinese is probably one of the most difficult languages to learn, from the options we could choose from and I am struggling here and there to keep up with the pace of our course. 😉

In the very beginning, we had to learn about the tones, which are, besides learning the actual characters of course, certainly one of the biggest obstacles.

IMG_9395_Fotor_CollageThere are 5 tones:

  1. High and level
  2. Rising
  3. Falling and then rising
  4. Falling
  5. Neutral and short

In most languages the pronunciation and the tone in which you pronounce the word do not change the actual meaning and people will most likely understand exactly what you are saying. That can be different in Chinese!

For instance the word “shi” has plenty (very) different meanings, depending on the tones (and even “shi”s of the same tone have several translations).

Saying “shi” with the pronunciation in the 4th ton (which is  and sounds like the tone of a strict “no”) can mean “to be”, “thing”, “market” or “style” (…). However, when pronouncing “shi” in the 2nd tone (which would be and sounds like a question), it can be translated as the number “ten”. It is getting really confusing now in our dictations we have every Thursday, and if can be difficult to understand which “shi” our teacher means, as we have learned quite a few already 😉

The best known and quite entertaining example is probably the word ma, which can mean – depending on the pronunciation and context – mother (), horse (), to scold (), weight/number/code ()… and the list goes on and on. Thus, if you are not careful enough, it might happen that you address your mother as a horse… 😉

And even though that sounds pretty difficult, Chinese is so much fun to learn!! Probably also because it is very different from most other languages and I have very nice Chinese (classmates), which makes a big difference as well!

Our class is progressing very fast and now we cannot just introduce ourselves, but also talk about our families, our age, read the clock and the calendar and right now we learn how to go shopping in China. You will read about that in my last part of my Chinese Trilogy, coming up soon, where I went to Chinatown to “test” my (little) knowledge about Chinese, with surprising insights 😉

Now that you know about the first difficulties one might have with the tones, the 2nd Part of my Chinese Trilogy will tell about the characters and how exciting it is to “analyze” a character and why Chinese gets easier the more you already know.

! Bye, bye! 🙂


Sorry to all Chinese speakers out there, if I made a few mistakes here and there, I am still a beginner! 😉

 , 我! 😉






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This entry was posted on April 21, 2014 by in Frederike, Study and tagged , , , , , .

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