A Storage Mouse

Guinea Pigs at Pets Corner

Guinea Pigs at Pets Corner by Cyberslayer

We are forever being told that the best way to learn is to make mistakes, but it’s not often that we get to observe ourselves doing so. There have been a few times in my on/off attempts at learning Chinese when I’ve remembered things as a direct result of my mistakes.

I introduce you to 囤鼠, the storage mouse. I forget why, but I asked A. how to say guinea pig in Chinese. Without seeing the characters, I assumed that túnshǔ was 囤鼠 which translates literally as “storage mouse”.

Forgetting everything I knew about traditional household pets I assumed that the guinea pig was named 囤鼠 because it stored food in it’s cheeks. I was wrong on two counts:

  1. Guinea pigs don’t store food in their cheeks; that would be the hamster.
  2. The Chinese for guinea pig is 豚鼠, túnshǔ which sounds exactly the same as storage mouse, but is in fact a completely different character.

Realising my mistakes, I looked up the word for hamster. To my surprise, this really was a storage mouse; 仓鼠, cāngshǔ.

One week on, I can still remember the difference between a guinea pig, a hamster and a storage mouse. Learning from our own mistakes really is the best way to learn. If you are still struggling, the following vocabulary might help.

Chinese Pinyin English
shǔ rat / mouse
tún to store / hoard
tún suckling pig
cāng barn / granary / storehouse
豚鼠 túnshǔ guinea pig
囤鼠 túnshǔ storage mouse
仓鼠 cāngshǔ hamster

Understanding Discounts in China


In a local clothing store in Beijing, I was puzzled by this sign on many if the clothing rails. In English, this means 50% off. But I couldn’t understand why.

> 折, zhé, discount

It wasn’t so much the character 折 that confused me as how 5 could imply 50% off. I could understand 5% off but 50% seemed odd.

When used in this context, 5折 means 0.5 times the price, and hence the 50%. So in the photo above, an item of clothing costing 100RMB would now cost 50RMB, a good deal.

So here’s a test for you. If the original price for an item of clothing is 100RMB, what is the price after the discount advertised in the photo below?


If you answered 65RMB you would be correct. But you could just as easily have answered 35RMB which would be wrong, and leave you disappointed at the till.

When we advertise discounts in the UK we often talk about money off. So you often see signs for 20% off or 50% off. Here, the percentage value indicates the money saved. However in China 6.5折 indicates the final price after the discount has been applied. So, the price you pay is 65% of the original or, in this case, 65RMB. So the lower the displayed discount the better the deal.

So there you have it; Chinese discounts explained. Now you have no excuse for not picking out the best deals.

How is your Chinese?


“How is your Chinese?” Truth be told, I don’t know how to answer this question. In part it depends on who is asking. If you are an English speaking colleague for example, my Chinese is awesome. I may as well say I’m fluent. If you are a native speaker, I have to come out and admit that my Chinese is hopeless.

I have been learning Chinese on and off for longer than I can remember. I listened to my first Chinese podcast ([ChinesePod](http://chinesepod.com)) probably somewhere in the region of six years ago. Six years is a long time to be learning anything and still not have a feel for how you are doing. The truth is, when I stop and think about it, I’m surprised at how much progress I have actually made.

Sat here, in a café in Beijing (admittedly [one that serves a steak baguette](https://foursquare.com/v/alba/4b6a7b14f964a52073d62be3)), I can’t help but feel more than a little pleased with my progress. Buying a travel-card, topping it up, finding my way, ordering coffee, asking why there were so few people in the coffee shop, and finding out how many cups of coffee they’d expect to serve in a day, are just a few of the things I’ve accomplished, all without a word of English. A year ago, that would never have happened. So what has changed?

Last year I took a risk and cancelled my ChinesePod subscription. I had no podcasts to listen to, no practice sessions and generally felt as if I’d hit a dead end. For several months I debated a new approach in the hope that this would give my studies a much needed pick-me-up. In the end though, the pick-me-up came from an unexpected source: I simply started speaking more.

I don’t know what triggered it. It could have been the desire to keep my Mandarin going while in-between lessons, increasing opportunities to practise, or just that my [resident translator](http://alicialiu.co.uk/) decided enough was enough. Whatever it was, it has been the most significant boost to my Chinese for a long time.

I used to open my mouth and utter a few polite words, certainly nothing like a coherent sentence and would be met with full on praise for the fact that I could speak Chinese. Now, I stumble through something close to a sentence and am met with a response as if I was a native speaker. Gone are the niceties and the simplification. I’m just expected to understand. This has led to many a blank look and many a misunderstanding. I regularly have to admit defeat and ask for a translation. My language may not have improved, but I have certainly grown in confidence and it feels awesome.

I may just have found a way to break through the language learning plateau and start making progress again. It feels great to be back at the bottom of the ladder and starting to climb. If you have found yourself struggling to move forward, I’d highly recommend putting yourself out there and seeing how far you get with speaking, you’ll surprise yourself. When you do, please let us know how you get on.

Chinese Character Challenge: Accepted

Over on Hacking Chinese, Olle Linge has challenged us all to take part in the Chinese Character Challenge.

This isn’t a new years resolution so you are not required to commit to learning ‘n’ characters per day. This challenge is to improve the way you learn Chinese characters, encouraging you to use a more sensible strategy than just simple repetition.

The characters I remember well are the ones that tell me a story. I’m easily forgetting even the simplest of characters if I can’t associate them with a story. Repetition does not work for me.

I have accepted the challenge and will be sharing both my experiences (and hopefully progress) over the coming weeks. If you too want to accept the challenge, please read Olle’s article in full before signing up.

Read Olle’s original article: Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese


Photo by William HookWell I finally made it back to my Chinese class after a couple of weeks off for the wedding followed by a busy few days at work. It was good to get back to class, but the time off has really set me back.

Determined to catch up, I have put together a short passage using all the constructions we were asked to practice this week. Instead of clothes, I’ve given my sentences a tech slant.
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