Chinese transliteration: something strange may happen


Hi, everybody! Sebastián here

Many time has passed since I wrote here about different language material schools. However, I felt that today is a good day to write something, and just one week before a job I have where I will be translating a Chinese cheerleading team, this theme brought my attention up.



Chinese, as many of you know, is a Sino-Tibetan language, where Indo-European logic does not rule anyway. This is very important, as Chinese grammar is easy, but syntaxis is not so. I have been experiencing some issue about this topic, because for me things are getting harder if I don’t have the experience having a true exposure with this language, which has faded since I went to China for Chinese Bridge Competition. One of the crucial differences is how phonology works.


In almost every language, toponyms and international names are suited up really well. Let’s have a glance in Japanese; though imperfect, names are written with one special alphabet called Katakana, so here it’s easy to spot on a foreign word and you can guess on the meaning (by the way, when I tackled Japanese, I was extremely surprised with the huge amount of English loanwords in this language). While this can be an advantage for a beginner polyglot, for me it makes me sad that such a beautiful language has such many loanwords. In Korean this becomes harder. Even if Hangeul has “the most perfect syllabarium” according to the King Sejong, sometimes it’s hard to spot on a foreign word, such as name, but you still have a vague idea of the meaning. However, you must be naïve to think that with only this knowledge and a nice meaning of this syllabarium, that would be enough. Why I am saying so? Because Korean from South Korea and from North Korea differs from each other, even in loanwords. As both parties have had many influences, so are this kind of words: for example, North Korean variant uses loanwords from Russian, while South Korean uses mainly loanwords from English, especially American variant. But even so, the pronunciation can somehow be mimicked. So…

How does Chinese phonology work?


Chinese has a stock of 405 possible syllables (abovementioned in this image) to speak in and fitting foreign words such as names, toponymes and family names is indeed a hard work. Yes, this is a tonal language, there are four/five tones, and this 405 potential syllables are combined with tones to make different words. If we put on some math, it turns out that there may be 1620 possible syllables. So, this also affects how foreign words are built in Chinese. As Chinese has no special writting for foreign words like Japanese, or a versatil one like Korean, it has no other choice but to fit in an approximate way that this can be pronounced. This does not apply to country names near from Chinese story, with an actual meaning:

Japan 日本 Rìběn (literally “The root of the Sun”)

Korea 韩国 Hánguǒ (literally “The country of the Korean people”)

Vietnam 越南 Yuènán (literally “Far South”)

and of course

China 中国 Zhōngguó (literally “The central Country”).

Other countries’ names have to undergo this transformation, with nonsense/curious meaning. Let’s have a look to this map:


Nonsense, right? If you put on the pronunciation, it becomes clearer:

Spain. 西班牙 Xībānyá Look: “España”

Italy: 意大利 Yìdàlì

Poland: 波兰 Bōlán

Bosnia: 波斯尼亚 Bōsìnìyà

Some country names are put with the character 国 (meaning: country) attached with a first character brought by the actual meaning. This three countries are

France 法国 Fǎguó (the first syllable from “français”, Fǎ 法)

Germany: 德国 Déguó (the first syllable from “Deutsch”, dé 德)

United Kingdom: 英国 Yīngguó (the first syllable from “English”, Yīng 英)

The notable exceptions are:

Iceland: 冰岛 Bīngdǎo (it means “Island of Ice”)

Belarus: 白俄罗斯 Bái’éluósī (let’s remember that in Russian, the name of this country Беларусь, means “White Russia”, where the character 白, means White, and there is happily a coincidence in pronunciation)


For names the thing becomes even more curious. We have some features. In Chinese the names for people are normally composed by two or three characters (even four, as this happens with Japanese people), whence the first one is the family name, and the last ones, the given name. Unless you have gotten a Chinese names based on a calque of your personal name or name received based on your personality, hobbies or skills (in my case, I invented my name: 高乐敢, Gāo Lègǎn, as I’m a tall guy, I tend to be happy the main time, and I dare do anything without hesitation), your full name frequently requires more than three syllables. How do Chinese separates the names? They use a huge dot: •  Let’s look at this example:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin: 弗拉基米尔• 弗拉基米罗维奇• 普京 Fúlājīmĭr Fúlājīmĭluòwéijī Pùjīng.

Now, I’m gonna focus on the family names of the Presidential candidates for the White Candidates:

Democratic party: Clinton 克林顿 Kèlìndùn (gram forest pause)


Republican party: Trump 川普 Chuānpù (river general)


Can you imagine a Trump commanding a river? Well, he actually did it.


Well, that’s it. I promise not to abandon this blog for a long time.

See you!


Comparison between language learning material schools


Hi, everyone! Sebastián here. I’ve been busy in this New Year 2016 that has started decently. Now I have a lifetime goal, and guess what? Languages are involved. And precisely I want to talk a little bit about language learning materials, but with a different approach.

Another blog talking about which method is the best? How boring…

Wait, my intention is not to compare if Rosetta Stone is an upset, or Duolinguo has got an important set for any language you want. No, my focus will be slightly different: it’s about the country they were printed in. This comparison will be according to my experience and if anyone wants to add more things to the toss, be my guest.

Brief story of evolution

article-2090595-0CE143CE00000578-112_468x315In his book Babel No More, Michael Erard mentions something authenticly inherent to language learning history: before XIX century, this kind of methods only used techniques to develop the letter areas, i.e. reading and writing. And it was because the very first languages that were the goal on the Illustration period were Latin and Ancient Greek, leaving no space for the oral ones (listening and speaking), because of lack of speakers. Then, the aim of any guy who claimed to be “citizen of the world” swifted to learning French; however, this methodology didn’t change whatsoever, and it was only a passive way of learning, and when they arrived to any French-speaking country, they struggled a lot to grasp at least the gist in an everyday conversation. And the acid attitude from Frenchmen (particularly those from Paris) didn’t help foreigners as much as they wanted.

teaser_HI015_300x200Towards the end of the XIX century, a German-North American pedagog Maximilian Berlitz had a serendipy, when by being ill,  he asked a friend to replace him at teaching French, while he recovered. The twist of the story is the following: Nicholas Joly, the replacer, spoke no English and had the quest of teaching French. Six weeks later, Berlitz came to the class just to find that students were making a fast progress and they were little by little mastering the pronunciation, a weak point to the average American guy. What had happened? Joly used no English: he used gestures, pointed to objects and used tone of voice and facial expressions to convey meaning. Et voilà: the Berlitz method started to skyrocket as the head language school on Earth.

That meaned a revolution in all the ways of language learning, but in the main part of XX century, it seemed that competence was just stuck to the read-and-translate-grammar-rules methodology, obviously leading to a deception of the incipient learner. By the approach of massive media, things also started to change and now many methods are close to the “functional language” rather than “just memorise the rules and exceptions and if you make mistakes, you’ll go to the hell of not communicating anymore”.maxresdefault

Now let’s go to the point

In my language learning path, I’ve bumped into several methods, and with the visit of one of the most prolific polyglots on Earth, the great Ioannis Ikonomou, I started to see several differences not between methods (something that even the most rookie of the learners can visualise) but between countries. I can identify at least four country-schools:

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Soviet-Russian

Soldiers march during a World War Two victory parade in Red Square in MoscowI will start with Soviet school. As the Cold War went by, any warm try to approach to “capitalist America” was censured. But Soviet people were known for their success while learning foreign languages. They surely tried to stick to severe discipline and to do endless translations. The result: hardcore books with special focus on grammar rules and memorisation of new vocabulary for its future application.


The advantage is the huge offer of languages, and that it’s an extraordinary key to learn languages from former USSR. The weak points: of course these books are not for beginner learners, as they might feel discouraged to carry on, and the lack of audio files due to the factthat Russian is not exactly a phonetic language, and the explanations are somewhat confusing. Soviet books of languages were not printed by a company, but rather by institutions and universities.


Then, I would move on to English school. (Attention: I’m not saying that only UK had a prominent role. What about US books?) As I told you before, at the start of XX century English-speaking learners had a passive way of language learning, but rules were not so hardcore. But imperialism from both England and US required more learners in order to set the power with a deeper blueprint. By the last decades of that century, methodology switched to a fairly usefulness. What do I mean? That instead of learning complicated rules, they started with a dialogue with a cultural topic, a rough translation of the words used, digested grammar and light exercises. At least they started to focus on communication. If you still don’t believe me, just grab a Teach Yourself book from 1940-5o’s and one from 1990 from beyond. Difference is indeed huge.

american-touristsAdvantages are simple: a more direct communication from zero moment, avoiding by all means learning useless vocabulary, huge massification is biggest language list and add of audio files. Disadvantages: they learn grammar but only by bunches, and not as the context may say, something that may lead to “broken” conversations, and the eternal struggle to fully convey the right pronunciation for English speakers who have the bad luck of not having audio files (we all know tricky phonetics of English). Brands: Teach Yourself, Living Language, Colloquial, … for Dummies, Routledge, and list goes by, because this school

0412-COM-German-exchangeGerman school is like a continuum between English and Soviet-Russian schools, so they are not so hardcore, but communication is not the main goal, but to correctly speak.

Best+German+School+Awarded+Chancellor+Merkel+EBWlqqhcC5TlAdvantages and disadvantages are fair to be seen at a naked eye: fair communication but “illness” of grammar is detected. By antonomasy, the brand of this school is Lagenscheidt, a well-known printer of the best dictionaries on Earth.

France-image-858_3020641bI wanted to finish with French schoolbecause it clearly differs from the first three. The key word for this school is: assimilation. They start to learn apparently sentences with no context, but using at one side native language and at the other one, the target language, and at the same time, grammar is essentially explained along. It comes along with recordings from native speakers while the pronunciation is at the first steps clearified with an approximant. After a passive learning, from the middle starts to be more active: there’s a progress but it’s still a review of all the concepts learned so far. And to top it all, humour is there.

1843536338The advantages: a quick progress, learning of the right intonation, light memorisation and the feel of having a great communication. Disadvantage: it may seem ridiculous, something that for serious learners may be “childlish”. The sign brand: Assimil.

My recommendation…

Start with French school, but use English for a complement and German for doubts with vocabulary. If you still don’t have clear on your mind the grammar, use Soviet.

This is all for today. Tell me what do you think of this article below. I hope not to abbandon this blog anymore.

El nivel de un idioma (o por qué es una estupidez preguntar por el porcentaje)


Hola a todos. Hace mucho que no escribía en este blog. Y me veo en la necesidad de escribir y en español por un tema que ha salido muy a colación ahora que estado en la búsqueda de un trabajo. La cuestión es esta:

Constantemente, me estado encontrando con varias vacantes de trabajo que dicen esto:

Porcentaje de inglés: 70%

Continuar leyendo

2015 New Year resolutions


Hi, everyone! It’s Sebastián again. Yes, it’s been a long time that I don’t post here, but there has been a lot of changes in my life. I’ve got a new job, being hired by PepsiCo via Adecco. Now, I’ll be a true food chemist, along with my life as a multilingual guy. I’ll talk about my job later, and how I manage my time to study. Because now, my fellow language lovers, I’m going to tell you my New Year resolution.

2014 was a sensational year: I’ve been certificated in Russian and Chinese, I took Farsi and Georgian, as well as the fact that I started to study Turkish and SerboCroatian. But I pretend to do it even better in 2015. So, I set myself these goals:

  • To start with German, Irish Gaelic and Latin. German is an owed language that I want to study so bad due to its importance, and I have no doubts it’s going to be easy for me, as I speak already English and Dutch and I’ve just certificate a case-full language, as Russian. Irish has also an overwhelming culture backing it, and as I love celtic music, I’ve felt pumped up and eager to study it. While for Latin, except Romanian, I’ve been studying all the majour Romance language. I have to go back to the roots. I know I’ll have fun with this ancient language, and at the same time, I’ll probably be able to grab it in a short time, as the cases are not longer a problem for me.
  • To take five certification tests. In these recent times, I’ve felt the urge to prove the world that I officially speak my language in a functional level (for me, B2 is a quite good level to prove I’m a fluent speaker), and I know that in a future, those documents will be useful. Screw percentages of mastering, I want to take the following tests: CAE or First Certificate (English B2-C1), KER Progresanta Ekzameno (Esperanto C1), CELI Livello 3-4 (Italian B2-C1), Diploma intermêdio/avançado de português como língua estrangeira (Portuguese B2-C1), and DELF (French B1-B2).
  • To continue learning Farsi and Georgian.
  • To improve my Turkish, SerboCroatian, Hebrew and Dutch.

I will stay you tuned, so you can follow my progresses while fulfilling all of these resolutions

Please, do share you resolutions. I want to know what are you aspirations for this beginning year.

The Nelson Mandela tactic


Before I start, I must ask to you some questions:

  • Do you love/Are you interested in languages?
  • Do you love making friends?
  • Are you interested in other cultures?
  • Would you like to say something in other languages even if you don’t speak it?
  • Would you like to make the day to a stranger?

If you answered “yes” to at least three questions, then this entry is made specifically for you; otherwise, you may skip it and go to other topics. Continuar leyendo

Chinese Bridge 2012: My experience (Part 1)


Hi, everyone! Sebastián here. Today I’ve been witness of a new champion in soceer football: Germany, that overruled for the first time as a reunificate country, as well as became the first European champion on American soil (America is not only US, but a continent, but that’s another issue). Germany won 1-0 against always-strong Argentina. But that’s another story I’ll talk later about. Today it has been one year that I took part on a contest organized by Confucius Institute and Hanban in order to promote Chinese language learning around the world. For more information, you can visit this website: Chinese Bridge You have to click on it, because I won’t lose time explaining many things.


It was the 12th edition of this Chinese Bridge and I took part on the Mexican Qualifiers, after gaining the spot in my language center. For the international competition, there’s a established number of spots per country that reppresent that, as well as another place to go as a visitor. For Mexico, two contestants are available; so the first two places go to China. I was second, so I claimed a spot to tak part in that competition. In these videos, mechanics about competition are explained detailledly:

After all the procedures (Visa, inscription, sending photos, etc.), finally I was ready to go to my first trip ever since 1998. I was plenty of illusions and high expectations about take on the fight concerning to Chinese language; besides that, I knew already that I’d be in Babel tower too, so all of the knowledge acquired previously would be assessed in a higher degree. Finally I would be able to put in practice in a real polyglot context all of my languages. Imagine: 128 guys from 78 countries. I had another mission: I heard that there would be contestants from Latin America and Spain too, so I inteded to make a video explaining the differences between different accents in Spanish language. God, it might be my Eden, as well as I might fulfill my childhood dream 🙂 


Diary of my linguistic adventures around China

Disclaimer: If you are waiting for the whole adventures I had, you’ll be dissaponted, because I will only write about my language practice.

Day 1

I flew in June 30th. I must confess that as a Latin American country, Mexico is a priviledge country, due to the fact that it’s the only country that has direct flights to China. I remember my Argentinian fellow that had a 36 hour trip (Buenos Aires-Sao Paulo-Doha-Beijing), while we had only a 14 hour journey (Mexico City-Tijuana-Shanghai-Beijing). On the stop-over in Shanghai, we had to wait for our plain. And in waiting room, I found some Italian guys, whom I practice Italian with. And then I found a Dutch man struggling with Internet. When I found out that he was Dutch, I immediately switched to Dutch, before the astonished sight of my fellow. Well, I was warming up all the knowledge, and yet I didn’t miss the chance to brush up my Chinese in order to immerse myself.

So when we arrived to Beijing, I just realized that my Chinese would be not decent enough to handle all the possible situations. I found that my fellow spoke better Chinese than me and I barely understood what our driver said. Well, we finally arrived at our hotel (5-stars of course) and after the check-in we went to our room. But I was eager to make friends from scratch, so I went to the lobby, just to find the contestant from Israel and later, the South African guy came into scene. Yep, the Israelian (his name is Yoni) also spoke lots of languages, including Spanish and Russian, so we kept switching between English, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. But it was only warm up, because I didn’t want yet everybody that knew about my abilities, so I begged them not to tell anybody. After some chit-chat and the routine questions (situation about our countries, our profession and so on), we went back, because we had the dinner (in China dinner is served at 6 p.m.). When we were back to our room, I had the best idea ever: to take out a lucha libre mask and to wear it. Previously, I discovered that the girl from Iceland (Weitzhen Lo, aka Susan) spoke basic Spanish, so I practiced with her. And also, as neighbours we had a Tajik guy (Muhibullo) and an Australian one (Alistair, eventually the big champion). We spoke a little bit with him and then I felt the urgence of practicing Farsi and Russian, but I held myself. I knew that it was not the time yet.Then I wore that mask, provoking laughs of the South African guy (Merwe). While we were picking food, his roommate from Russia (Misha) told me in Chinese that Merwe told him that I spoke in Russian. Obviously, I complained with him about that. He apologized about that, and to compensate, he suggested me to go with my Mexican friend (José) and Yoni for some beers. Well, during dinner, contestants from Romania (Bogdan) were there, and then I reafirmated that my Chinese would not be enough to communicate, and the fact that I would have no other choice but to speak English scared me. Then I knew that the Greek lady (Christina) spoke flawless Spanish because he had lived in Venezuela for five years. And then I saw the Sri Lankan girl (Chathurangi)

Finally, Merwe, Yoni, José and me went outside for some beers and we spoke more about our situation. I had the brilliant idea of returning to Merwe’s room. There was Misha and a Russian girl that spoke Russian. In order to break the ice, I gave them a Mexican peso coin. But I felt that it would be nice if I practice Russian, so then I switched to Russian. Obviously, Misha and the girl (Sonya) were surprised that according to them I spoke very well Russian. Sonya said that many foreigners tend to speak Russian with a noticeable accent, while I hadn’t accent at all. Then I said some slang, and they were even more surprised. Again I asked them not to tell anybody I spoke Russian.


Day 2

I tried to watch the Confederations Cup final (Brazil 3-0 Spain) but I woke up so late that I could only watch the final 15 minutes. And then I had a Skype call from my parents. All of this caused that I couldn’t eat breakfast (served from 7 to 9), so I went to the grocery store to have a rare breakfast. We had a photoshoot session for the contest, where we went later, because finally Yoni’s roomie came. He was a Canadian guy (Luc) and he surprised us when he spoke fluent Chinese, beside his native languages (English and French, from his father) and Spanish at a high level. And I has so happy because he knew all the language learning community, specially Benny “the Irish Polyglot”, Tim Doner. At first sight, he didn’t believe that I spoke so many languages, but after seeing me giving a sample, he just convinced himself. Luc, as a plus, had a explosive and easy going personality. I knew that we would be good friends. Then we went to take the lunch and there I saw many guys that reciently arrived: an Austrian couple (Simon and Katharina), a Bulgarian guy (Konstantin), a Croatian men (Martin), and so on. I discovered that Katharina spoke Spanish too with a Castilian accent, because not so long time ago, she had a Spanish boyfriend. Then, Konstantin started to speak to me in Spanish from Mexico when he knew I was Mexican. In the dinner, I found a Latin American guy because of the physonomy. I was right: Alonso, from Ecuador. While we ate, we spoke about the competition and I was happy of chit-chatting with a brother. And a Canadian girl, who was terrificly hot: Heather. She used to be a cheerleader, explaining why she had a sexy body (sorry, I’m a man), and she spoke Spanish too because she had lived in Mexico for six months.

Then, the photo session came. I allowed  Obviously we had the order of bringing typical costume from our countries, and I became a Mariachi, letting go my explosiveness and my extrovert personality, subtly flirting with the girls: British (Anne), Czech (Tereza), Chathurangi, girl from Madagascar (Rotathiana) and Katharina. But there were men too: Luc, Simon, Konstantin, Martin and a Belgian guy (Edouard). I wasn’t ready to let out my knowledge, so all the time we spoke in English. In the lobby, I saw a roomates couple: one girl from Italy (Eleonora) and one from Georgia (Salome). I already saw Eleonora on photos, and she had a pretty face. In order to know them, I started to speak to them in Chinese. Then, when Salome said she was from Georgia, she said in English: “Nobody cares about my country”. Well, in the end she didn’t know I was the Tlatoani of languages. But at the same time, we went to Simon’s room to hang out. Then I saw that Katharina was really hot and most important, she spoke 8 language flawlessly: English, Spanish, Italian (from her mother), German, French, Portuguese, Hebrew (she was Jew) and Chinese. I tried to make an interview to her, but she refused. As Simon had a guitar, we started to sing some songs. My field was “world music” and then I grabbed guitar and started to sing a Israelian song: “Od yavo shalom aleinu”. Katharina joined me, but then she had the idea of singing the second national anthem of Israel: “Yerushalayim shel zahav”. Imagine this randomness: a Mexican guy and an Austrian girl singing a Israelian song in China. I don’t know guys, but I was in paradise.

Then I went back to the lobby while wearing the mask (a guy from New Zealand, called Campbell, a true maori, complimented me), and I saw a girl from Morocco (Btissame), France (Momo), Argentina (Leo) and Brazil (Aristeu), but I decided it was not time yet. Again I wanted to see who else was in the photo studio. Then I went back, and I discovered that Muhibullo was speaking to some businessmen. For this part, I must tell some fact: there’s a guy called Moses McCormick who makes some level-ups, videos where he practices his languages in malls. I knew that I had the very first serious practice: these businessmen were from Iran, so they were speaking Farsi with Muhibullo. So I switched to Farsi and they were surprised that a Mexican spoke Farsi. Maybe my Farsi was too basic, but still was a surprise, because the leader called his delegation to show that fact. He gave me a card, and he was the CEO of an Iranian oil company who was here in China just to make some business. Then Muhibullo remained, and then I switched to Russian. Obviously I recorded the conversation with Iranians and Muhibullo (in Farsi and Russian), Belarussian girls (Julya and Katya, in Russian) and Christina (in Spanish).

Then to Btissame, Momo and Rotathiana in French, Leo in Spanish, and Aristeu in Portuguese. But Muhibullo wanted to try my mariachi custom. Even though he had a deep accent in Russian, I could understand and he took the photo, without letting the chance of wearing his custom, even thought he was smaller than me. And then the dinner came. Konstantin practiced his Spanish with me, obviously I allowed him to practice. Meanwhile, I practiced with Momo in French, and he told me at the end: “Tu fais des progress avec le français” (You’re making progress with French). There was also a contestant from the last year, from France too (Marine), and I also practiced my french. As I ate at a slow pace because I was practicing my languages, I had the chance to meet even more people (Tereza and Slovak girl, Slavomira, who also spoke Spanish), and a Kazakh girl (Aigerim), surprised that I spoke Russian Then, I remembered the words of Merwe: his fellow was so sexy. Then when I was about to finish my dinner, I found a couple of Turkish guys (Ataberk and Mahmut). Ataberk spoke Spanish and he was the first guy to ask me to teach him some Mexican slang, and when I told him that I knew teams from Turkish league, he replied me that he knew Mexican football too, mentioning my team at the first place. 

There comes the best moment. At the end, I saw a very smoking hot girl, so I followed her. She was the South African girl (Jani) with guys from Zimbabwe (Michael aka Obama), Tanzania (Balthazar), US (Juliet) and Indonesia (Audrey). Then after I asked them to introduce themselves, Michael asked me in Chinese:

-Where are you from?

I answered him: “I’m from Mexico”

Then he asked me: “Ты говоришь по-русски”? Why? Because in Chinese, pronunciations of Mexico (墨西哥/Mòxīgē) and Moscow (莫斯科/Mòsìkè) are quite simmilar. So, Michael misthought I was Russian and as he knew Russian from his mother, he was free to speak to me in Russian. But I wasn’t a multilingual guy for nothing and I replied in Russian, but then I switched to English so all of the guys understand. Michael was surprised that I spoke Russian even thought I was Mexican, and then with Jani I spoke in Dutch, as Afrikaans is a daughter language from Dutch boers. I remember that Michael said: “This guy’s an inspiration”. This was my feeling

In order to celebrate Yoni’s birthday, we decided to go to La Bamba, a bar-club famous for students from abroad. There was nothing remarkable in languages, except that Luc won the duel for Katharina, and my friends got beers from Chinese guys because of speaking Chinese. After the club, we went back to hotel, just to find British guys  (Ricky and Josh), and speak English showing my mask.


To be continued…