Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Languages’ Category

Texting in Hieroglyphics


I always wondered whether Chinese people had dictionaries.  I mean seriously, how do you look up a picture?  I can imagine how you might have English-Chinese language dictionaries using pinyin (a romanization of Chinese characters), but beyond that it gets more complicated.  So, since I am in China, I set out to find a dictionary.  Shortly after starting my quest, I found in the basement of a Wumei (naturally, a Walmart competitor).

The way a Chinese dictionary works is that it catalogues the manner in which the characters are drawn.  In other words, they are organized by how many strokes it takes to draw a given character.  And then for a given stroke number (say 11), the characters are ranked by the order in which the characters are composed.  So using a Chinese dictionary requires you to not only know how many strokes it takes to construct a given character, but it also means you have to be familiar with the rules that govern how each character is constructed.  It is as complicated as it sounds.

The reason behind my quest for a Chinese dictionary is that the phone I bought is stuck on a setting where I can only text in characters and most of my friends text me in characters.  While I am truly awed that humanity can figure out how to make tens of thousands of hieroglyphs available through an alphanumeric keypad, it has gotten a bit frustrating.  Tapping out – “I’ll be there in a few” takes the hapless foreigner about 20 minutes of skimming through a dictionary.


Learn Chinese in A Week


In a recent trip across Asia, I found myself crossing countries with lots of different languages and regions within countries with their own languages – many of which I had never heard of.  In need of basic necessities and friends, I did my best to learn whatever the local language happened to be.  In the process, I kept a list of the words I needed/used the most in each area.  I found that 200 words was pretty much all you needed to know to get by, to ask people questions, to make demands and to make friends.  After trying lessons, books, tapes, etc…, the 200-word approach is what I found works the best.  Because if you are visiting a foreign country, you are most likely visiting a country as a traveller, and only for a limited period of time, so what you need is a traveller’s vocabulary that you can learn quickly, not a nuanced understanding of grammar and syntax.

In the links below, I have the list of 200 words you will use the most while travelling in China.  I have also included a link to a brief pronunciation and usage guide that should help you get on your way to using the 200 words quickly.  The best way to use the document with the 200 words is to print it front-and-back and then fold it in fourths, so that you can carry it with you and use it in any situation.   Getting these documents up and running took a lot of work and they are free, so I would appreciate any referrals.

You can download the document with a list of the top 200 Mandarin words by clicking – here.

You can download the pronunciation and usage guide by clicking – here.

I have a bunch of these for various languages, so if you have any comments, suggestions or requests, please email me at

Good luck!