Archive for Chinese

Where to learn Mandarin in Singapore?

Chinese calligraphyWhether you just landed or are a born and bred Singaporean, if you see this post, chances are that you’re looking to learn Mandarin in Singapore. What’s the best place?

Actually, there isn’t one best choice to recommend everyone. It depends on many factors.

The Chinese courses directory on Yago allows you to narrow down the options based on the type of course (full-time, part-time, private, online) and location (East, Central etc.).

But how to decide what type of course? Or which school is more suitable? This post covers the most important things to think about when making a decision.

Factor 1: How much time do you have? What is your schedule?

When I arrived in Singapore in 2006, I came to live with my then girlfriend, now wife. I had no job offer, and as a recent graduate, it took me some time to secure a job.

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Versatility of Chinese words

English is full of polysemes which are words that are written in the same way and have multiple related meanings. An example of polysemy would be the words; ‘mole’ – a small burrowing animal, and ‘mole’ – a person burrowing for information without wanting to get found out. However, ‘mole’ – a blemish on the skin is a homonym, i.e. a word spelt and pronounced the same but with an altogether different meaning.

If you want to learn Chinese in China, Keats School in Kunming can prepare you for similar linguistic challenges.


意思 (yisi) is an example of a word in Chinese that has a variety of uses with related meanings that can often lead to confusion for non-native speakers. 意思 (yisi) generally connotes ‘meaning’, for example 这是什么意思? (zhe shi shenme yisi), but depending on how it is used it can also have various nuances in meaning. A common phrase in Chinese is 不好意思 (bu hao yisi) which equates literally as ‘not good meaning’, but would commonly translate as ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’. 不好意思 can also have the meaning of embarrassed. 有意思 (you yisi) or 没意思 (mei yisi) would translate literally as ‘have meaning’ and ‘no meaning’ respectively, but when translated properly take on the meaning of interesting and not interesting. The latter could also connote ‘no meaning’ used, for instance, when someone saw a nonsensical image and wanted to comment on it. In the same way if someone saw something interesting they could comment ‘很有意思’ (hen you yisi) = very interesting.

Then are examples that slightly veer away from the original word but are still related etymologically. 小意思 (xiao yisi), literally ‘small meaning’, has a slightly more complex cultural meaning. We would most likely translate it as ‘a token gesture’, or ‘a small token of appreciation’ with an emphasis on modesty. Someone might self-deprecatingly describe a gift to someone else as a 小意思.

A phrase which is very difficult to explain, let alone translate, is 意思意思 (yisi yisi, lit. trans. meaning meaning) . Again, the general meaning would be a token gesture, with modest connotation, but this time, maybe with a slight emphasis on the action being something that ought to be done as natural. Discussing a colleague’s birthday present some workers might decide to buy somethings a token gesture but also as it would be right and natural to do so – 意思意思.

Here is a well-known joke in Chinese translated into English and with a literal translation to show the confusing humorous element of the conversation:

A student wants to offer his teacher a red envelope with money in. This, ambiguously, could be out of respect for the teacher or maybe with an intent to secure better grades

      Teacher:“你这是什么意思?”       What’s the meaning of this?

  Student:“没什么,意思意思。”     Nothing, meaning meaning

  Teacher:“你这就不够意思了。”   You giving me this is not enough meaning

  Student:“小意思,小意思。”       Small meaning, small meaning

  Teacher:“你这人真有意思。”      You really have meaning

  Student:“其实也没有别的意思。” Actually there is no special meaning

  Teacher:“那我就不好意思了。”     Well, no good meaning

  Student:“是我不好意思。”             No, it’s me that has no good meaning

A translation without the humour might look like this

Teacher: What’s the meaning of this?

Student: Nothing, just a gesture (as you are my teacher and I respect you I should offer this)

Teacher: This means nothing. (here there is some ambiguity – does the teacher mean not enough money to bribe him/her or that the student should do more to earn respect than offer money.)

Student: It’s just a token gesture.

Teacher: You really are interesting (sarcastically implying the student has intention to bribe the teacher)

Student: Actually, there’s no special meaning

Teacher: Well then, I’m somewhat embarrassed.

Student: No, it’s me that’s embarrassed

So, we can see that Chinese also has polysemy, but can manifest in even simple words that can become quite confusing when the meaning strays further and further from the original source – 有意思。

Eight ways to learn Chinese in Singapore

Chinese characters on a blackboard

Of course, there are more modern ways of learning Chinese

Is there a secret formula for learning Chinese? I think what comes closest to a guaranteed path to success is focusing on the actions you take on a day-to-day basis.

Find a mix of activities that you can sustain long term. In the best period of my (part-time) Chinese learning, I spent an average of at least an hour a day on classes and homework. Every week. For two years.

Should I tell you exactly how I did it? I don’t think that would be very helpful, because what worked to keep me going and engaged, might not work for you.

So you’ll have to figure out your own secret formula. Language learning activities are the “ingredients” to any secret recipe. Here are four ways to learn Chinese in Singapore, and four that will work anywhere, for you to experiment with!

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Get 70% of your Mandarin course subsidized at SCCIOB


SCCIOB’s logo

When I first got in touch with them in early 2011, the people from the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce Institute of Business (SCCIOB) were a bit apprehensive about being featured on Yago.

I can’t really blame them. At that time, Yago was a brand new site with just a few language schools on them.

Two years down the road, we now have courses from 56 language schools in our directory. And hundreds of student reviews. And SCCIOB has decided to join Yago!

The great advantage that SCCIOB’s business Mandarin courses qualify for as much as 70% government subsidy.

Here are a couple of examples of how it could work out:

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Learn Chinese online: Live lessons, apps and learning platforms

Glowing globe with appsThere are many reasons why you might want to learn Chinese online.

Saving money is probably a motivation for some of you. There are lots of free resources available online. And even if you don’t go for “everything free”, a subscription to a learning website is likely a lot cheaper than attending live courses.

Convenience is an important motivation too. There are online language schools that offer lessons through Skype and comparable platforms. They’re not necessarily cheaper than joining a class in Singapore, but you get to choose when the lessons are, and what to focus on.

And for some it’s just about learning faster. Learning online or off is not an either/or choice. You can perfectly listen to a podcast when you’re travelling to work and still take classes. If your class is a bit slow, you can supplement your learning.

Here are three different approaches to learning chinese online.

1. Live online Chinese lessons.

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How Wuxia Kicked My Chinese Learning to the Next Level

Light Sabre in Buddha Palm

Star Wars? No, it’s a wuxia movie.

What is wuxia? A quick and dirty way to explain it is to compare it to Star Wars.  Some people say Star Wars is wuxia in outer space, and they have a point.  If you took the story of Star Wars, set it in the Chinese empire, replaced the Jedi with xiákè, replaced the light sabres with Chinese swords, replaced ‘the Force’ with Taoism/Chinese medicine/Chinese martial arts/etc., then the result would be indistinguishable from wuxia.

Actually, you don’t even need to replace the light sabres.  The weapon this guy from the movie The Buddha Palm is holding sure looks like a light sabre to me.

Wuxia has been a big, BIG help with my study of Chinese.

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Chinese for Dummies

Chinese calligraphyThere is no such thing as one ‘Chinese language’, in fact, Chinese is a collective noun for several dialects or regionalects, with Mandarin being the official standard language in China.

So what about Mandarin?

What do Chinese characters consist of? How are they ‘built’? And how to write them?

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Giveaway: FREE Teach Yourself Complete Mandarin Chinese

Teach Yourself logo

Some time in 2004, I picked up a copy from Teach Yourself at a Popular bookstore. The book and audio CD were my first introduction to Mandarin.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when Pansing, Singapore’s distributor for Teach Yourself, contacted me.

They have kindly provided a free copy of Teach Yourself Complete Mandarin Chinese which is for Yago to give away!

Would you like to get the book? All you need to do is like our Facebook page (which you can do in the widget below). You can also increase your chances by tweeting about the giveaway or following Yago on Twitter.

So charge ahead! And who knows you’ll be holding the box with a full-color book and 2 CD’s in your hands next week!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Do all Singaporeans speak Chinese?

Pinnacle @ Duxton seen from Neil RoadI wrote a guest post for Hutong School‘s blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Do all Singaporeans speak Chinese?

I was once in a police station to update my residential address. As the young Singaporean Indian officer was helping me to get that done, an older Chinese man entered the police station and addressed the police officer in Mandarin. The officer’s response was: “I don’t speak Mandarin. Malay can?”. And they proceeded in Malay.

To read on, continue on the Hutong School Blog!

Guest post: Learn a language by doing

Hutong School logoThis is a guest post from Hutong School: a Chinese language school with branches in Beijing and Shanghai. Theresa Hirsch shares with us how to learn faster by focusing on doing, rather than studying alone. Helpful advice, whatever language you’re learning. You can find a profile of Hutong School, as well as loads of extensive reviews, here.

Learning another language is manageable on one condition: practice, practice, practice! Grab every opportunity you can get, and you will be able to learn a language by doing.

So where are the opportunities? Here are some things you can do. And while we use Mandarin as an example, they are applicable to pretty much any language.

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