From nothing to
a little Chinese

This is no language course

Bibliographical information from the German National Library

The German National Library registers this publication in the German National Library. Detailed bibliographic information can be retrieved at http://dnb.d-nb.

ISBN 978-3-86882-173-4 | E-Book Edition (PDF)

ISBN 978-3-636-06371-7 | Print Edition

1st, English E-Book Edition (PDF): © 2009 by mvg Verlag, FinanzBuch Verlag GmbH, Munich, Germany.

2nd, Print Edition 2007: First published in German language © 2007 by mvg Verlag, Finanz-Buch Verlag GmbH, Munich, Germany.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Figures: Vera F. Birkenbihl

Chinese Characters: Chiang-Mei Wang

Typesetting: JUNFERMANN Druck & Service, Paderborn, Germany

image “ma”
image “ma”
image “hu”
image “hu”

How many of your friends know, what “mamahuhu” means? After reading this book you can explain it to them.


PREFACE to the English Edition

Preliminary note by Thomas GONSCHIOR

Chinese Cognitive Quiz Game (little questions and experiments)

Prelude: E SI MA HE TE?

No. 1: What does MAO actually mean?

No. 2: A little drafting experiment

Your first Chinese characters (= words)

Pictogram or ideogram?




No. 6: The CALF

No. 7: Compressed information?

No. 8: New spelling rules

No. 9: FLOUR = FACE?

No. 10: Almost no grammar...

No. 11: Words like LEGO bricks?

No. 12: Pipe, haul and bow...

No. 13: And how do you speak?


No. 15: Interim result, incl. supplements

No. 16: PINYIN

No. 17: ma-ma-hu-hu: Do you know how to CHENG-YU?


Appendix I

Supplement no. 1: Solutions

Supplement no. 2: WORD ADDITION – 7 x teacher

Supplement no. 3: Ten of the most common Chinese family names and their meaning

Appendix II

1. Radicals – ABC (in alphabetical order)

2. Radicals – ABC (in alphabetical PINYIN-order)

3. Radicals – Number of lines (classical presentation)


PREFACE to the English edition




Sometimes it is good to know something about the history of a book so let me tell you a little about this one. Compare it to a tree. One of its roots lies in my major goal (brain-friendly procedures), meaning: How can we learn, teach and/or communicate in a way which is easy to understand and remember? If the procedures fail to be brain-friendly, people feel confused, frustrated, “stupid”. They lose incentive or self-esteem. Once we change to a brain-friendly approach people suddenly seem much more intelligent. Normally, when something does not function properly, we try to find out why and so we improve procedures in many areas. When we look at schools we do the opposite: instead of questioning the method we assume the student having difficulties is at fault. In my teacher trainings I have asked thousands of teachers “what must change for our schools to become better?” and 75% of them put the blame squarely on the students (lazy, uninterested, lacking intelligence), the parents (not enough support of school at home) or the politicians who do not give schools enough money. Only 25% of these teachers clearly realize that the act of TEACHING must change. Please remember that we are talking about teachers who came to a seminar about teaching! Teachers, however, who do not entertain the idea of going to such seminars place even more blame on their students, no matter whether the students are children, teenagers or adults. Thus the question of how we teach languages has been one of the starting points for this book.


A second root of our metaphorical book-tree lies in my special seminars Teaching outside the classroom. I am working from the assumption that anybody who wishes to INFORM is basically TEACHing since in both cases we want people to LISTEN (READ), UNDERSTAND and finally REMEMBER. Whether a salesperson wants you, his or her potential customer, to understand the benefit of a particular piece of hardware or the advantages of his or her service, he or she will try to INFORM you. This is however a form of “teaching” and if potential customers do not understand and/or do not remember his or her product or service, he or she does not have much of a chance. As I started to teach companies more and more of the participants began to realize that many a problem they had had in school had been because the processes of teaching in their schools quite often had not been NOT brain-friendly. They began to understand that their former feelings of inadequacy had been the result of bad teaching rather than of bad learning. This process led to ambiguous feelings: on one hand they were quite happy to understand that they themselves had in fact been far less “stupid” as children than they had felt then. But on the other hand many of them had children today and were now concerned lest their children become equally as “handicapped” by the me thods of teaching as they had once been. Thus they asked me to also teach them how to LEARN in a brain-friendly way. Anybody who has learned and mastered these new techniques can “inoculate” their children against classical school learning/teaching (two sides of the same coin), such as rote memorization, teachers up front monologizing for hours, weeks, months on end, teachers preventing (rather than eliciting) GOOD thinking. Good thinking wakes, nurses and “feeds” curiosity, bad thinking kills interest in a subject.


The third root of our book-tree is semantics. I believe, as WITTGENSTEIN has so clearly stated, that “the limits of my language are the limits of my thinking ability”. SAPIER and WHORF have shown that Indo-European languages tend to look for THINGS whereas Indigenous peoples’ languages (e.g. HOPI in North America) rather describe PROCESSES. For example, which if these two sentences is correct?

1. I have a problem.

2. He fisted angrily.

Most speakers of Indo-European languages tend to think No. 1 is OK, No. 2 is “wrong”. If you argue strictly grammatically you can make your case. But we could make the opposite case by thinking about the meaning of words. Incidentally, schools generally prefer to look for FORM (grammar) rather than CONTENT (semantics) which greatly hinders the development of critical thinking – in students or in teachers. But if we dare to think about the meaning, beginning with the second sentence, we can discover strange things:

He fisted angrily

If your world is full of nouns (FIST) it is full of OBJECTS. WHORF suggests an experiment: close your hand to make a FIST. Then open your hand. Where is your FIST? Participants speaking Indo-European languages generally say: “It is GONE”, but in order to GO, something must have been someplace, must have had an existence of its own. In other words, we have taken a minute part of a dynamic PROCESS, have frozen it (like a snapshot) and call it FIST, although there really is no such OBJECT (with the exception of the iron or stone fist on a monument). But normally there is no such THING as a FIST, a FLASH, a WAVE, a PULSE to mention a few physical PROCESSES. The same goes for ideas or metaphors (impulse, incentive, motivation). A manager who believes that there is such a THING as motivation will think about “getting it” somehow, for instance by hiring a “motivational trainer”. Thus they can never discover that they themselves are influencing their people who observe much more what they DO than what they say. You cannot buy motivation from an expert outside your company like you can buy THINGS e.g. PCs for the people who want to solve the “problems” in their company because they find the PROCESS interesting, fascinating or because they gain satisfaction from problems “solved”, tasks “done” etc. Which brings us to sentence No. 1.

I have a problem

If you say “I have a book” this short statement contains a number of assumptions which are automatically attached to OBJECTS (e.g. a. objects are “real”, b. objects exist independently of people, c. if a person dies, their objects will remain where they last put them, etc.). If you are talking about having a problem, however, you are treating the problem as an object! This implies a. that it is “real”, b. independent of yourself. But if you were to die tonight, where would your problems be? So you see, Assumption c. does not fit any more which might make us question assumptions a. und b. Is the problem really “real”? How often have we “had” problems with other people who could make us extremely angry? However, some time later we might only remember the anger but cannot reconstruct its reason (which we called a “big problem” way back then). There are philosophies (and brain research has meanwhile proved it to be true) which have been stating for thousands of years that “problems” have to do with what we perceive and how we interpret what we perceive plus our judgement (this ist stupid, he is a bad person, I am too dumb to learn a language etc.). If we look outside of Indo-European languages we will find, that many languages of other derivations do not have a word with the MEANING “to have”, therefore a problem and an object fall into different logical categories. We think, it is perception but there is no such thing as perception totally separated from language. There are reciprocal feedback loops: it is true that language influences what we can perceive but perception (which always includes interpretation) also influences what we are going to think about a situation. (Parts of this book will take up this theme, e.g. when we consider that the Chinese word for COMRADE describes a person sharing goals with us.)


And the last (fourth) root of our book-tree is the goal to help people “find their way” into the Chinese language. The German original is part of a small series, offering introductions into Chinese (presently in its second printing), Japanese, Arabic (spring 2008) und Turkish (autum 2008). From the reactions of the readers it is clear that only about 60% of them read it because they want to learn the specific language (our fourth reason) while the other 40% are interested in the other “roots” of the book-tree.

My book on language learning Sprachenlernen leicht gemacht (31 printings) has not yet been translated into English but there are two e-books available which can help you in the meantime.*

If you want to tell me why you picked up the book, please e-mail to


Now that you know the roots of our book-tree let us look at the stem (the rest of the book being its branches and leaves). You will en counter a number of questions and small tasks and you are invited to participate. This has to do with the first root: If the information is brain-friendly the receiver can easily understand and remember. Active participation is one of the best strategies and you are invited to grab paper and pens (good pens with thick lines for some small drawing tasks) and play with us. For all who are interested in the TECHNIQUE an English e-book (CQG-Training 2007 – Cognitive Quiz Game) already exists (which can be located by searching for its title on the Net). It explains how to cull interesting questions out of “dry facts”. You can use CQG in classrooms and lecture halls but also in meetings of all kinds. Thus if you play the first round by going through the questions and small tasks, you will find out how easy it is to “digest” information afterwards, because you have already begun its “digestion” just as saliva begins digestion. And if you don‘t chew because you think you lack the time it will take much more time later and not be good for your health. The CQG is like chewing well before swallowing (reading on afterwards) so that digestion is easy and your body (and memory) can use most of the “nutritional” value of the mental or spiritual food offered. If you want to use this little book LIKE A SEMINAR then PLAY THE CQG! Maybe even you could play it with your friends or neighbours. I wish you a wonderful time with this book.

THANKS: I want to thank my coach and co-author Thomas GONSCHIOR whom I first met three weeks prior to the evening seminar (from which this book grew), just in time to clear up some things. Furthermore he is the one who is able to “write Chinese with a PC” (I can only write Chinese by hand). I also want to thank Mrs Maria PINTOPEUKMANN from the original German publishing house (mvg) who has been responsible for at least two thirds of the more than 30 translations of my books into other languages, including this one! Three thirds of the translation was done by Mr Oliver BAILLIEU who then had to leave for America rather quickly so that Mr GOSCHIOR finished it.

And I want to thank Mr GOYAL, our Indian publisher who did not give up when the first draft of this book was electronically sent to him and arrived with parts of the English text and all of the Chinese characters MISSING. Other people might have given up, he did not. Due to his patience the project continued and by now everything should be in its proper place.


Preliminary note by Thomas GONSCHIOR


Is it possible to learn Chinese at all? Isn’t it way too difficult, too strange?

I had asked myself the same question years ago, when I wasn’t sure whether or not to study sinology, that is the Chinese language and culture. “Chinese is one of the easiest languages in the world,” was the first thing I heard from my Chinese teacher at the Freie Universität Berlin, who added nonetheless: “Because of its simplicity, it is difficult for us people in the western world.”

Indeed there are no conjugations or declinations or irregular verbs in Chinese. Instead there are Chinese characters. No noun, no verb will ever change. The whole meaning is understood by the word order and the context, that is through common sense.

I was lucky to study this language in Taipei pretty early. Learning a language in its native country is still the best way. I became acquainted with Chinese without thinking too much about it. Today I speak Chinese with my wife from Taiwan on a regular basis.

But I’ve also experienced the following: You can go nuts with the Chinese language, trying to impose some kind of regulation on it, as you’re probably accustomed to doing with other European languages.

When I got to know Vera F. Birkenbihl I was a little bit irritated by her approach to learning a language. But soon it got exciting to first ana lys e a language, to understand it and to understand how it works, then finally learn in a brain-friendly manner.

The two of us developed something I wanted during my studies, but never found: The thousands of Chinese characters are based on 213 basic symbols, which are called radicals. If you know and understand this manageable number of radicals, you can not only deduce lots of Chinese characters, but also learn their inner meaning and hence the way of Chinese thinking. This book will give you some good examples.

We have three differently arranged lists of the Chinese radicals in the appendix, which will be of great help.




image image image image
to reveal lid surprise joy

Enjoy it!

Chinese Cognitive Quiz Game

(little questions and experiments)


In this chapter you will get to know a number of tasks and questions. Are you ready to play the game?

Prelude: E SI MA HE TE?

We start with a little experiment. Guess, what language do the sentences below emanate from? A hint: It’s not Chinese. In fact you can “write” every language (to a certain extent) in Latin letters, even Chinese (we will get to it), but the following sentences are definitely not Chinese. They emanate from one of the 12 most spoken languages in the world. Only four of these 12 languages are written in alphabetic characters, and this is one of the four (the other eight languages use different characters).

E si ma he te ni xi ci.

Nei men rei e si ni xi te yu bo er.

Wa si yi si te luo si?

We are going to solve some riddles immediately, but the answer to this one comes just a little bit later.