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An unorthodox course in spoken Chinese: Bending the rules in order to make it easier to study Pinyin 
Introduction | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7 | Section 8  

 Learn Chinese pinyin -  Section 4: Pronounce g as k  

Example: tai4 gui4 (too expensive)
Memory aid: Try to read this sentence by pronouncing the g as it should be pronounced in pinyin. (Are you confused? Don't be! Just read the sentence as you would in English (ignore the spellings in pinyin!) and you'll be all right:
I use a gettle to boil water in, but to open a gan of beans I have to use a gan-opener.

English-speaking students will need some time and plenty of practice to get over the fact that in pinyin (that is in Chinese) the g is not pronounced as the g in geek or give but rather as the k in kettle or, if you prefer, like the c in cat (but not aspirated). These common words in Chinese, all of which start with the letter g, will give you an idea of the sound of g in pinyin.
The example given above is a phrase that you will need to use quite often when you go shopping in places where bargaining is the order of the day and where foreigners are often an easy target. In such a case you just say tai4 gui4 (too expensive) and move on even if you are interested in the object as the salesman is likely to call you back if he can reduce the price or just say bu2 yao4 (don't want) if you have no intention at all of buying it.
Let's take gai, another word starting with g (and which should always be pronounced as k in pinyin), and see if you can get the four tones right. Here is the first tone to get you on the right track: gai1
And here are the four tones that you should be able to get right by now: gai1, gai2, gai3, gai4
Let's see how the same sound can have different meanings according to the tone given to it:
When it carries the first tone it is frequently used in ying1 gai1 which means "should" or "should have (done something)" eg. ni3 ying1 gai1 bang1 mang2 ta1 ("You should help him" or "You should have helped him.")
In its third tone it is frequently used in gai3 bian4 meaning "to change" as in ta1 gai3 bian4 le zhu3 yi4 ("He has changed his mind.")
Please note that each time I translate ta1 as "he" it can just as well be "she" as ta1 in pinyin can stand for both "he" and "she".
In its fourth tone it is often used in the phrase da4 gai4 which means "probably" as in ta1 da4 gai4 bing4 le ("He is probably ill.")

Let's gan1 bei1 !  

Now let's run through the four tones for the word gan and then see how important it is to get the tone right in order for our interlocutors to understand us. Check the four tones here: gan1, gan2, gan3, gan4
In its first tone the word gan is used in two everyday phrases.
When you drink a toast to someone you say gan1 bei1 which means "Let's dry/empty the glass" ( bei1 or rather bei1 zi3 means "a glass", remember)? In Chinese wedding receptions it is not uncommon for the bridegroom to go from table to table drinking a toast with all his invited guests who don't spare him just a sip of the alcohol but expect (almost "force") him to drink to the last drop. You can imagine how groggy the poor bridegroom will be at the end of his rounds!
Another popular use of the word gan1 is in the two words gan1 jing4 which taken together means "clean" (as opposed to "dirty").
It has got three very common uses in its third tone, though in each case it has another word to go with it (remember what I said earlier about Chinese words often going about together in pairs and not singly?)
Thus gan3 kuai4 means "to hurry", gan3 mao4 means "having a cold or flu" and gan3 xie4 means "to thank" or "be grateful to".
Then there is yong2 gan3 which can be both a noun and an adjective meaning "courage" or "courageous". Example: ta1 hen3 yong2 gan3 ("He is very courageous.")
Standing this time by itself in the fourth tone gan4 is a very common word indeed and means "to do", as in the question ni3 gan4 shen2 me? ("What are you doing?")

Follow my banker

For a change I am not going to ask you for all the four tones of gang. Following the example of my banker who, in order to identify me over the phone, does not ask me for the five digits of my secret code number but chooses at random according to his mood of the day ("What is the first and last number of your code?" or "What is the second and fourth number of your code?") I am now going to ask you for just the first and the third tone of gang. Try them out first and then check the answer here: gang1, gang3 .  Bravo if you got it right!
In fact you have already seen gang3 in the first lesson where I wrote: Hong Kong in Chinese is xiang1 gang3  , remember?
Now gang1 in the first tone is used in such common expressions as gang1 cai2 meaning "just now" or gang1 dao4 meaning "just arrived" as in ta1 gang1 dao4 le ("He has just arrived"). If he has still not arrived you can say ta1 hai2 mei2 dao4
Let's see if you can now give the first and the fourth tone of gao. Here's the answer gao1, gao4 . I hope you got it right and I can say "Bravo!" again.
Now look at these two sentences using gao1 in the first tone:
ta1 hen3 gao1. ("He is very tall.").
ta1 hen3 gao1 xing4 ("He is very happy."). The two words gao1 xing4 have to be taken together and its meaning is "happy" or "pleased".
The same gao1 xing4 is used in the standard expression to use when you are introduced to someone in China.
It is ren4 shi4 nin2 hen3 gao1 xing4 (literally "to know you is a great joy" and is the equivalent of "Pleased to meet you."). The older folks however still stick to the classical jiu2 yang3 which means "I have been waiting for a long time to have the honour of meeting you". I would strongly advise you to use this term if you are being introduced to your prospective father or mother-in-law. It would certainly make a very good first impression!
The two words ren4 shi4 together means to "know" someone. Incidentally if you want to ask your friend if he knows someone in the room you will turn your head or point to the person (very discreetly, need I mention?) and say ni3 ren4 shi4 ta1 ma? ("Do you know him?")
In its fourth tone gao4 is often used in the term gao4 su4 meaning "to inform" as in the sentence ta1 lai2 le qing2 ni3 gao4 su4 wo3 ("Please let me know when he arrives" or literally he-comes-already-please-you-inform-me.)

More vocabulary (words starting with g)

ge1 ge = big brother
But ge1 alone (different character though) means "a song" and chang4 ge1 means "to sing a song".
gen1 = with eg. wo3 gen1 ni3 qu4 (literally I-with-you-go or in proper English "I'll go with you".)
ge2 bi4 = next door
geng4 = more, as in geng4 hao3 (better), geng4 kuai4 (faster) and geng4 duo1 (more of something)
gong1 = work but yong4 gong1 = hardworking and gong1 ren2 = a worker or labourer
gou3 = dog
but the same word in the fourth tone gou4 means "sufficient" as in gou4 le ("That's enough").
gu1 niang2 = girl (another word being xiao2 jie3 )
guai1 = obedient, well-behaved (of a child). As with all single-word adjectives in Chinese it is usually preceded with hen3 (very).
Example: zhe4 ge4 hai2 zi hen3 guai1 (This child is very well-behaved.)
guan1 men2 = close the door
guang1 = bright. As with all single-word adjectives in Chinese it is usually preceded with hen3 (very).
Example: zhe4 ge4 fang2 jian1 hen3 guang1. (This room is very bright.)
You have already learnt that guo2 in its second tone means "country" (eg. the United States is mei3 guo2 ). In its third tone guo3 means fruit but it has to be used with "water" which in Chinese is shui3 . So the Chinese word for "fruit" or "fruits" is shui2 guo3 (literally water-fruit). You would have noticed in passing that shui3 guo3 is pronounced as shui2 guo3 (3-3 becomes 2-3, remember?).

No ghosts in gui3 jie1 !

One of Teresa Teng's greatest hits is ye4 liang4 dai4 biao3 wo3 de xin1 (The moon represents my heart)
Can you pronounce these two words correctly? gui3 and gui4. The first word gui3 which is in the third tone means a "ghost" while the second word gui4 in the fourth tone means "expensive". Again you don't normally use a single-word adjective alone but with hen3 (= very) or tai4 (= too) eg. hen3 gui4 (= very expensive) or tai4 gui4 (= too expensive). And in case you want to go through the four tones of gui here they are: gui1, gui2, gui3, gui4
By the way do you know that in Beijing there is a street called gui3 jie1* (Ghosts Street)? And what do you think you will find in this street? No, not a cemetery, as you might be led to think from the name. In fact it is a street that is over a kilometer long and has nothing but restaurants on both sides of it, some of which stay open 24 hours a day. For this reason it is packed with diners even in the small hours of the morning. But the restaurants here are not like the restaurants you see all over Beijing. What is so special about the restaurants here is that all of them display huge, brightly-illuminated red Chinese lanterns in front of their premises. In fact it is as if they are all trying to outdo each other in having the most colourful and decorative lanterns. You can have an idea from the picture here.

Summary of Section 4 (with Chinese characters)

*Go here for an explanation of the origin of Ghosts Street (gui3 jie1). By the way jie1 means "street" while the word for "road" is lu4 .

Back to Section 3On to Section 5