Thanks, Teacher Zhou

In 2011 I wrote a post about Zhou Youguang, the father of the Pinyin writing system. The post was titled “Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin.”


Here’s what I wrote about him:

For those of you who are studying or have studied Chinese (in China at least), were it not for this man, Zhouo Youguang, you would be learning  the language without the benefit of Pinyin. This is the guy who decided that the letter q would represent a ch sound, xan sh sound, and an i the semi-vowelled r sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinyin, it is the standard Romanization system used in China to phonetically represent the sounds of Chinese characters. Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, but only about 400 ways to pronounce them. In other words, once we learn how to say these 400 ‘words’ we can actually say (not to be confused with speak) Chinese.

After studying linguistics in the US  (where he was a friend of Albert Einstein), he returned to China in the 1950’s and was given the task of coming up with a standard Romanization of Chinese. It was introduced in 1958.

Zhou Youguang passed away in China last week, at the age of 111. Here’s how NPR reported on the significance of his linguistic invention:

Since his system was introduced nearly six decades ago, few innovations have done more to boost literacy rates in China and bridge the divide between the country and the West.

Pinyin, which was adopted by China in 1958, gave readers unfamiliar with Chinese characters a crucial tool to understand how to pronounce them. These characters do not readily disclose information on how to say them aloud — but with such a system as Pinyin, those characters more easily and clearly yield their meaning when converted into languages like English and Spanish, which use the Roman alphabet.

While it was not the first system to Romanize Chinese, Pinyin has become the most widely accepted. For Chinese speakers, many of whom speak disparate dialects, its broad acceptance made education easier, giving instructors a single, relatively simple instrument to teach people how to read.

Beyond China’s borders, Pinyin allowed the standardization of Chinese names. For instance, it’s a big reason why the name Westerners commonly use for the Chinese capital shifted from “Peking” to “Beijing.” And it’s why many other such names changed dramatically along with it.

On behalf of Chinese language learners everywhere, let me say “Thanks, Zhou Youguang!”

Image source: Getty Images, via NPR

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Even though I have a fairly high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, there are still numerous places in China where I can travel to and not be able to understand a word of what is being spoken by the locals. This map, posted at That’s Magazineshows why


Image credit: @nick_kapur, via That’s Magazine

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State Names in Chinese — Literally

When I began studying Chinese (years ago), one of the first things I wanted to learn how to do was answer the question about where I am from. That meant learning how to say Minnesota in Chinese.

It is simply a phonetic translation: ming ni su da (明尼苏达).

On top of that, there is Minneapolis: ming ni a po li si (明你阿婆里斯)

Since they are phonetic, I never stopped to ask what the literal translations were.

The good folks at Live the Language recently posted this interesting map of what US State names would be if they were literally translated back into English from Chinese:


Good grief. I speak Chinese and that map still makes my head hurt!

Image credit: Live the Language


Bilingualism is Good for the Brain

I ran across this interesting info-graphic on the Twitter feed of the good folks at It highlights how bilingualism is good for the brain.


I like the idea of dimentia prevention. And the next time someone says I’m dense I’ll just tell them it’s my grey matter and that’s a good thing.

Image source:

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Learning Mandarin Chinese: 5 Great Ideas to Improve Your Skills

Note: This is a guest post by the good folks at the Learn Mandarin Website. They also recently interviewed me for a post on their site about effective language learning methods. 

street games in Beijing


Learning Mandarin Chinese can be undertaken via a wide variety of methods.

Recently, we at Learn Mandarin Now spent considerable time interviewing a number of Chinese language teachers, students and experts in order to find out about the preferred methods to effectively learn Chinese. We are now pleased to share with you five great ideas to improve your learning skills.

However, before we start, we’d like to sincerely thank Joann, from this blog, Outside In, for allowing us to write this post and who also contributed to our recent research.

The top tips can be summarised as:

  1. Learn Chinese by travelling to China

While not everybody can actually travel to China, owing to their particular circumstances, many people say that the most effective strategy is to go to the country and immerse yourself in the language. If you are really serious about learning Chinese and want to improve your skills quickly, this is certainly one of the best options. In fact, we discussed this subject with Joann previously: Learn Chinese in China.

  1. Keep on practicing

If you are not in China, or not able to travel there, there are sites such as Italki where you can still speak with native speakers. As an example, we know of some foreign students who learned to speak Cantonese even though they are not in a city where Cantonese predominates.

Obviously though, if you can get to China to live or work, one of the best ways to improve your language skills when you are there is to talk as much as you can to native Chinese speakers and try to blend into the local culture.

  1. Set attainable targets

While there are many online courses which claim to help you learn Mandarin Chinese quickly and easily, it’s important to remember that, no matter which way you choose, it will take years to speak fluent Chinese.

Don’t rush to try to study advanced Chinese; follow a clear learning pattern, starting with the basics—and don’t expect to know Chengyu or idioms from day one!

  1. Learning Chinese characters is a key element of learning Chinese

Often, students struggle with the dilemma whether to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters. However, in our opinion, it’s rather more important to simply get started and begin to take some action. If you can master either type of character, you can basically understand the other type.

In any event, learning Chinese characters is an important element of learning and, in fact, we offer some tips and the strategy about how to learn Chinese characters in this interview.

  1. Learning better Chinese is not always expensive

From recent research we undertook with expert bloggers: How to learn Mandarin Chinese, we found numerous sites offering to help students learn Chinese. When we looked closely, it was apparent that most are free or only require a small investment to get started.

No matter which way you choose, please check out our website Learn Mandarin Now as we are always finding new ways to help you learn Mandarin Chinese in the most efficient manner!

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Chinese Language Learning Infographic

The folks at Learn Mandarin Now recently queried more than 50 bloggers (including yours truly) about their favorite resources for learning Chinese. Based on the responses, they put together this helpful graphic listing the top ten recommended language learning resources.


What would you add?

Image credit: Learn Mandarin Now

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Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

As part of her research for a book about Esther Nelson, my friend Noel stumbled upon a digitized version of a Chinese language textbook used by foreign missionaries working in Sichuan Province in the 1920’s. It’s titled Chinese Lessons for First Year Students in West China, by Omar L. Kilborn.


Besides the fact that the romanization is obviously not Pinyin, and that some of the pronunciations seem to be based on Sichuan dialect, a glance at the table of contents reveals just how much things have changed:

Lesson 1: Conversation with a Teacher

Lesson 2: Hiring a Cook

Lesson 3: Hiring a Coolie

Lesson 4: Hiring a Woman Servant

Lesson 5: Giving the Cook his Orders

Lesson 6: Sweeping the Floor

Lesson 7: Washing the Floor

Lesson 8: Dusting

Lesson 9: Arranging the Furniture

Lesson 10: Piling Boxes

Lesson 11: Buying a Sedan Chair

Lesson 12: Sedan Chair Riding

Lesson 13: Travelling by Sedan Chair

Lesson 14: On the Road

Lesson 15: Changing Dollars

Lesson 16: Changing Silver

Lesson 17: Cleaning the Lamp

Lesson 18: Washing Dishes

Lesson 19: The Kitchen

Lesson 20: Setting the Table

Lesson 21: Putting the Food on the Table

Lesson 22: Cooking Eggs

Lesson 23: Cooking the Porridge

Lesson 24: Carrying a Letter

Lesson 25: Carrying a Lantern

Lesson 26: Buying Firewood

Lesson 27: Buying Coal

Lesson 28: Washing Clothes

Lesson 29: Ironing

Lesson 30: The Bedroom

Lesson 31: The Bathrooom

And last, but not least….

Lesson 32: Keeping a Cow



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