Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why authentic content is best at any level

We just started a thread where our recommended products are all "made for native speakers."  Well, sort of.  They are dubbed versions of children's programs (cartoons and live action) designed for the very young. 

This has advantages - first the content is suitable for children - no bad words and no inappropriate content.  Second, the language level is rather basic and simplistic.  The videos we will recommend feature simple sentence structures in short narratives (approximately 5 minutes in length).  Although you may like to watch movies, will a full length feature film really provide the repetition and appropriate language level for a beginning student?

Here is an excellent article about why authentic content is best.

If you have any doubts after reading it, rest assured, it is the latest trend in language teaching.  The IPA or Integrated Performance Assessment technique is specifically designed to utilize content for native speakers in language learning classrooms.  Teachers trained in the IPA technique can open up a whole new world of relevant content.  You can learn more at ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching for Foreign Languages)  Ask your language teacher if he/she is trained in IPA.

Learning Mandarin with Chinese Teletubbies - yes the Teletubbies!

Yuck!!!!! Ewwww!!!!  I can hear the groans of parents everywhere.  Yes, Teletubbies are our favorite.  Why do we love the Teletubbies?  The answer is simple - would you like to start your toddler or pre-schooler on the road to speaking Mandarin without pulling you hair out, having them rip the keys off your laptop or break the IPad?

What you really need are basic sentences, presented in a meaningful context that you and your child can understand by watching while you listen.  Books, apps, cds and other products that teach lists of words can accomplish only that - lists of words.  Products made for older kids can't hold the attention of very young children. 

If you have a toddler you know they are very special.  Your life revolves around trying to get them to do things you can't make them do - learn to use the potty, eat, say words, go to sleep when you are exhausted.  In general, they've turned your adult world up-side down and you may feel that they are in control, not you.  How will you introduce a second or third language?  Easy, give in and use something designed especially for the 2 year old brain - Teletubbies. 

Chinese Teletubbies, unlike their English counterparts, speak clearly without all that baby talk babble.  Teletubbies are perfect for beginning level learners.   At Chinese for Families we have transcribed most episodes.  Contact us for more information and special classes for young children. 

If you have a child between the ages of 1 and 4, Teletubbies will give you a few moments of peace, engage your child in a language rich environment designed especially for them, and provide just the right amount of repetition.  As an added bonus, you will learn too.  Give it a try.  We think you will fall in love with the Teletubbies the way we have - well maybe you won't name your car Xiao Po.  I did.

Now, not all Teletubbies episodes are created equal.  There are some that just don't meet the threshold of content you can understand by watching while you listen.  Our recommended DVD/VCDs are:

Here come the Teletubbies
Animals Big & Small
Big Hug
Happy Weather Stories
Hide & Seek
Favorite Things
Go & Let's Dance
Uh Oh Messes & Muddles
Busy Day

We don't like these Teletubby DVDs: 

Dance with the Teletubbies, Happy Christmas, Nursery Rhymes. 

These tapes have one or more issues that make them unsuitable for language learning:  a lack of Mandarin audio (either too much English or too much of another language) and/or a lack of visuals that correspond with the audio track. 

There are a number of new Teletubby titles but we have not yet seen them and therefore cannot comment.  However, we would LOVE to see them. 

The challenge is finding a store to buy Chinese Teletubbies. has Teletubby DVDs (region 3) from Taiwan and provide high quality authentic DVDs.  Video stores in Chinatowns also may carry Teletubbies.  Be certain to ask if they have Mandarin audio, not just subtitles.  If you have friends visiting China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, ask them to pick up copies for you.  VCDs are a less expensive format that will enable you play the video without having a multi-region player. 

Stay tuned for our next installment in the video learning realm - Miffy & Pororo.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chinese Grammar – A Brief Intro

This blog entry will briefly introduce Chinese grammar.  The contents of this article are limited to modern, vernacular Mandarin Chinese. 

Here is the good news -- in contrast to the writing system, Chinese grammar is simple and straightforward.  We’ll present “just enough grammar” to get you started.  At the same time I’ll explain what you would typically see during the first year of Chinese instruction.  The explanations and examples will be in English with limited pinyin.  

The purpose of this column is to give you a brief overview of the basic “rules” to keep in mind when trying to form a sentence in Chinese.  This isn’t a column to burden your child with.  Rather, this is intended for adults only!  Fortunately, kids approach language learning differently and are less preoccupied with grammatical rules, they just repeat the structures they hear.  We adults get bogged down in the semantics because that is the way we have always been taught languages (unfortunately).  So, I’m using a format that we are all familiar with to answer some basic questions. 

First of all, please keep in mind that Chinese is REALLY not as hard as you were led to believe.  This discussion of grammar should convince you.  Set aside those concerns about conjugation, case, gender agreement, and the grammatical “pitfalls” that slowed you down when studying other languages.  In Chinese, your primary concern is with the order of words in a sentence (the syntax).  Once you understand the basic sentence patterns, you just plug in new words. 

Basic Word Order

1.  Subjects come before Verbs 

Subject + Verb

2.  Objects can be located in two different places - after the verb or before the verb is a special particle is used
a.  Subject + Verb + Object
b.  Subject + "particle ba" Object + Verb

3.  Time comes at the beginning of the sentence

Time+ Subject + Verb

4.  Location also comes at the beginning of the sentece

Subject + location + Verb

Subjects & Verbs

Subjects occur before verbs and verbs are not conjugated, nor do they indicate tense.  Really, I’m not kidding.  Verbs are not conjugated and do not indicate tense!!!  Here are some examples:

Yesterday I go to the store, today I go to the store, tomorrow I go to the store, GO never changes

Further:  he go to the store, I go to the store, we go to the storeAgain, the verb NEVER changes in Chinese. 

Incomplete & Completed Actions – not the same as tense

In Chinese you have incomplete and completed actions.  A completed action, “yesterday I went to the store” would read:

Yesterday, I go to the store le .
The use of the special word “le” at the end of a sentence or after a verb indicates that the action is finished or completed.  The use ofle can be a little more complicated, but for now this is a sufficient explanation.  Please note that le is pronounced with a short vowel, not a long “eeee” sound.


Next, objects can appear at the beginning (before the verb) or after the verb.  If an object appears at the beginning of a sentence/phrase, you just add a special word next to the object.  This special word is bǎ A sample sentence would look like this:

Cassandra, please bǎ pencil pick up. Or
Cassandra, please pick up that pencil.

Nouns, Numbers & Measure Words

There is NO PLURAL, GENDER, or CASE agreement in Chinese.  Yippee!!!  A noun is a noun is a noun; no matter where it occurs and how it is modified.  If you want to indicate that you have more than one of something, like cars, you say exactly how many or indicate that you have a few. 

There are special “measure words” that accompany nouns when counting or indicating an amount.  These “measure words” are words that indicate categories of shape, size, or other characteristics.  So different types of nouns are usually associated with specific measure words.  These can be difficult for non-Chinese speakers to grasp since they do not typically occur in western languages, but when you get used to using them in conjunction with their partnered nouns, they become natural over time.  Just keep in mind that measure words are like saying you have a “pair of pants.”  Pair in this phrase is a measure word.  If you don’t know a specific measure word you can always fall back on the generic measure word .

3table (remember that you don’t need to change the noun to indicate a plural, so no “s” at the end in Chinese)
3 zhāngtable

Here are some good resources for measure words:

Adverbs & Adjectives

Adverbs generally occur before verbs but can also be located after with additional modifiers:

slow go.  Go slow.
go slow a little.  Go a little slowly. 
Adjectives are usually indicated by the particle de (which also makes a word possessive by the way). 

Red de balloonRed balloon.
Beautiful de girlBeautiful girl.
I/ de balloonMy balloon.


Time words always occur at the beginning of a sentence.  So, if you are going to the store tomorrow, you say:

Tomorrow I’m going to the storeNotice that the time word is in the beginning of the sentence.  Here’s another example.

Now, what time is it?  In Chinese, because “now” is a time word, it goes before the question “what time is it?” 

Place & Location

Place has a special “location” within the sentence.  Place words are usually accompanied by a word indicating that you are “in” that location or headed “toward” that location.  There is some wiggle room here but the general pattern is below:

I zàischool.  I am at school.  (Subject + location)
I dào school go.  I am going to school.  (Subject + location + verb)

How to Form Questions

There are 3 primary ways to ask questions in Chinese: 
  • using a question word such as “what, where, why, how, or when,”
  • negating the verb “go not go,”
  • by adding the question word “ma” or the phrase le méiyǒu 了沒有 to the end of a sentence.
a.  Using a question word (where) - You dào where go?  Where did you go?
b.  Using the negative - You dào China go (not) go?  Did you go to China?
c.  Adding ma to the end of a sentence - You dào China go ma ?  Did you go to China?
d.  Adding le meiyou to your sentence - You dào China go le méiyǒu 了沒有?” Did you ever go to China?


Ok, now you know the basics of Chinese grammar – REALLY!  We searched for a basic overview of Chinese grammar that would provide clear explanations in English accompanied by characters and pinyin.  This was no mean feat.  Here are some websites for further reading: