Learning Chinese

Madishan Mǎdìshān is my Chinese name. Shān is the Chinese word for mountain which is the English meaning of my family name Berg. Mǎdì was chosen because it sounds similar to the first two syllables of my first name Matthias.

As time and my scheduling has allowed, I have been studying Chinese since 2004 with varying intensity. It is a very beautiful language but unfortunately also very difficult. The grammar is relatively easy. The pronounciation needs some time to get used to, but after a while it is not too hard to correctly pronounce what you want to say. Listening comprehension is much harder as Chinese has comparatively few phonemes, so many words sound similar or even identical. Reading and writing Chinese characters is very challenging.

I would like to recommend some books and programs that have been useful to me in studying Chinese.


My textbook at the University of Bonn was the New Practical Chinese Reader. I have seen several different textbooks and I feel this one is among the best.

The following book takes a completely different approach: Chinese Characters: Learn & Remember 2,178 Characters and Their Meanings. In this book you learn the 2000 common characters in a special order to help with memoriziation. The characters are ordered so that they built upon one another. For each character they show the parts and tell a short story combining the parts and at least one meaning. To demonstrate the order I would like to show you the characters of the first lecture. book example


To study vocabulary it is highly recommended to use flash cards. The study technique behind this is called spaced repitition. The better you know a vocable the longer the interval until you have to repeat it. Computer pograms support study especially because you can let the program decide when it is time for you to review the flash card.

Currently I use the flash card program Mnemosyne. I also have had good experience with ZDT and Anki.

I highly recommend the dictionary Pablo because you can look up words by drawing them with your mouse.

To type Chinese characters I use GoogleIME. Unfortunately this input method editor is only available in Chinese.

Homophones/Homonyms in Chinese

Homonyms are words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings. Homophones are pronounced the same but are written differently and have different meanings. Here are a few examples in German and English:


Language Word Meaning 1 Meaning 2
Deutsch Strauß ostrich bouquet
Deutsch Reif bracelet hoarfrost
Deutsch Englisch Bank a long pile or heap credit institution
Englisch bow bend a weapon


Language Word Meaning Word Meaning
Deutsch wieder again wider against
Deutsch seid are (2nd person pl.) seit since
Englisch meet encounter meat food
Englisch too also two 2

In the mother language German or English this usually only leads to tedious spelling mistakes but rarely to misunderstandings. It even gets exploited in word play and the word game Teapot. As foreign language for learners of German or English it is somewhat more annoying. In Chinese this is much more complicated. To demonstrate this I would like to use the famous poem of the Chinese linguist Zhào Yuánrèn as an example.

Zhào Yuánrèn

This nice poem can be translated as:

Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den

In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o'clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

Zhào Yuánrèn

If you try to pronounce it, it gets really difficult. Pinyin is the official system used to transcribe Chinese characters into Latin script. The poem written in Pinyin looks like this:

Shī Shì shí shī shǐ

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Zhào Yuánrèn