In Chinese, the r sound is difficult. It comes up in often used words such as saying what nationality you are, ‘yīngguó rén;’ or remarking on the weather, ‘hěn rè.’ Try thinking of the sound as a combination of an English ‘r’ and ‘y’ with a little bit of friction or buzz. For an example, focus on the second syllable of the English word pleasure. Start with the buzzing ‘sure’ sound, then open the palate a little to add the ‘y’ from yes. With this knowledge of the difference in Chinese and English vocalizations, listen to as many Chinese speakers as possible.
Whether it is a bottle of milk, in-season strawberries or the English section in a library, learn how to find what you want with the following phrases.
I am looking for …
wǒ //zài//zhǎo I//am//looking for
In other sentences, zài can mean ‘at’ or ‘located,’ but in this case it has been used just before the verb and means ‘in the process of doing’ or ‘am currently,’ which is shortened down to ‘am’ in the English translation.
Zhǎo is a useful verb which can mean ‘to look for’ or ‘to find.’ There is no need to say the ‘for’ from ‘look for’ in Chinese, you can simply follow zhǎo with the name of what are trying to find, for example:
wǒ // zài // zhǎo // niúnǎi I // am // looking for // milk
A more direct approach could be to simply ask where the item is. In Chinese, the structure of this sentence is reversed to that of English:
yīngwén shū // zài // nǎli? English (language) books // located // where?
This sentence is an example of how the same word zài can have different meanings depending on how it is used, in this case meaning ‘at’ or ‘located.’ If you are unsure whether they have what you are looking for, you can begin by asking:
nǐ // yǒu // cǎoméi // ma? you // have // strawberries // question word
The ma at the end of the sentence changes the statement, ‘you have strawberries,’ into a question, ‘do you have strawberries?’
Another common way to ask a question is the yǒuméiyǒu pattern. This means ‘have/not have’ and can be taken as meaning ‘have or not have?’ As this pattern is already a question, it does not need ‘ma’ added to the end.
nǐ // yǒumeiyǒu // cǎoméi? you // have or not have // strawberries
While far from a comprehensive list, the following commonly used characters can clue the confused explorer to his/her destination.
jiē – Street: A look at the ancient version of the 行 (xíng) part of the character seems to be the intersection of a pathway or road. While 行 now has wide range of meanings, some of them include ‘to travel’ or ‘to walk.’ The definition of street is made clear by adding the character 圭 (guī) in the center of 行.
zhōngxīn – Center: A combination of ‘middle’ 中 (zhōng) and ‘heart’ 心 (xīn), these two characters mean ‘center,’ and are commonly used at the end of the name for a building or housing garden.