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How to count, introduce yourself, and ask someone their name in Chinese

Continuing my adventures in learning Chinese, here’s what I’ve learned about representing numbers, introducing myself and asking for someone’s name.

In addition to the enthusiastic attempts by my friend in Beijing to teach me Mandarin, I’ve been trying to use the Duolingo application to provide a structured approach to my learning.

It started out well enough, teaching me single words and helping me to match hanzi characters to their pinyin equivalents (see my earlier post if this makes no sense to you).

I was starting to feel pretty confident – I can now count to ten and beyond in Chinese and I have to be honest, their numeric representation actually makes sense.

Numbers in Chinese

Like us, they have characters to represent zero ( líng ) to nine (  jiǔ ) but they also have a separate character for ten (  shí ). It’s what happens after ten that I found interesting.

In English, we have specific words for twenty, thirty, forty, and so on. In Chinese, they don’t bother with the extra words, instead indicating the multiple of ten by the preceding character.

So twenty is literally “two ten” ( 二十 èr shí ), thirty is “three ten” ( 三十 sān shí ) and the pattern continues until you reach one hundred, which is ( 一百 yī bǎi ), literally “one hundred”. Yes – that’s a specific character for hundred.

The units for twenty, thirty, etcetera are represented just as logically with a character after the ten.

Twenty-one is literally “two ten one” ( 二十一 èr shí yī ). Twenty-two is “two ten two” ( 二十二 èr shí èr ). The pattern continues as you’d expect for the rest.

Telling someone your name

So, I was starting to feel pretty confident about learning Chinese. I could count, and I could recognise the characters for the numbers and I was thinking that I might actually be able to learn Chinese.

Then I moved onto the next lesson on Duolingo simply titled, “Name”.

I was expecting single characters drip-fed slowly into my brain as they had been in previous lessons but no. Suddenly I was faced with learning entire sentences.

This wasn’t too bad until I reached the exercises where I had to put the sentences together by picking the right hanzi characters. Yikes. I could not remember which ones were which.

I know it sounds like I’m giving up already but that’s not true at all – I just suddenly found myself being challenged and each lesson was taken five times longer than the previous ones.

The good news (and this should reassure you too, if you want to learn Chinese) is that after a large number of attempts and getting it wrong, it’s starting to stick and I’m starting to understand the sentence structure.

So how do you tell someone your name? Well, that’s a little tricky if you want to write it down. Because Chinese is written in Hanzi where each character is a word or part of a word, there’s no way to directly write a Western name like Phil with Chinese characters.

If you’re speaking it, that’s not so tough but if you’re giving your full name, make sure you say the surname before the forename.

The simplest way is to say 我叫 Phil ( wǒ jiào Phil ) which literally means, “I (am) called Phil”. Note – there’s no character for am in the sentence so literally it really means, “I called Phil”.

You could also rearrange the characters logically to say “Call me Phil”, like this: 我 Phil ( jiào wǒ Phil ). It’s things like this that I’m really starting to like about Chinese.  我 (wǒ) means, my, me, or I depending upon the context of the sentence and it just seems to make sense.

Getting slightly more complicated now, you can also introduce yourself like this:

我的名字叫Phil ( wǒ de míng zì jiào Phil ). This literally means, “My name is called Phil”.

Just like in English, you won’t always tell people what you’re called. You’ll just tell them who you are. I’m more likely to say, “I’m Phil” than, “I am called Phil” and this is also the case in Chinese.

我是Phil ( wǒ shì Phil ) is literally, “I am Phil”.

It’s probably important to note that you would only ever introduce yourself using just your first name in informal situations such as meeting friends, family or making yourself known in a situation where they were only expecting your first name. Formal situations would require your full name. So if you’re name was John Smith, you’d say, 我是 Smith John ( wǒ shì Smith John ).

Asking someone what they are called

This was where I really started to struggle on Duolingo. The sentence was suddenly much more challenging with lots of extra characters but like any foreign language, it was just a matter of learning what each character was, and where it went in the sentence.

你叫什么 ( nǐ jiào shén me ) is literally, “You (are) called what?”. This way of asking someone their name is only appropriate when talking to people that are your age or younger, or work colleagues that aren’t your superior.

More formally (like on application forms and other written stuff) it’s more common to be asked your full name like this: 你的名字是什么 ( nǐ de míng zì shì shén me ) which literally means, “Your (full) name is what?”.

You can also demand somebody’s name in a somewhat rude manner by asking: 你是谁 ( nǐ shì shuī/shéi ) which is literally, “You are who?”. Think of this like us asking, “Who the heck are you?”.

Wrapping up

Now that I’m learning more Chinese sentence structure, I’m actually really starting to enjoy learning Mandarin. It’s extremely challenging for the same reason that I’m enjoying it – it’s so utterly different to the languages that I’ve learned in the past.

For this article, I found this article and this article on really helpful for building on what I’d (not really) learned in Duolingo.

Although I think the spaced repetition in Duolingo is great for learning a language, sometimes I need some things explained to me. Duolingo hasn’t (so far) given any indications about what is polite or impolite, for example.

I’m going to carry on using Duolingo – I love the continual testing and reinforcement of my learning as I go along but I’m going to be more proactive and look for additional sources to help me understand the language.

I’ve tried and failed to learn other languages in the past many times and this time I’m determined to reach a fluent level in Chinese for no other reason than that I’m sick of being monolingual and Chinese is a fascinating language to learn.


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