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Can You Use 成语 (chéngyǔ)? Learning Chinese with FLAS fellow Margaret Walrod

August 18, 2016

Margaret Walrod, a UW graduate student in Applied International Studies, was awarded a Summer 2016 Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship by the East Asia Center.  She is spending her summer studying Chinese in Beijing with a teacher from the Chinese Language Education program.

Great Wall of ChinaShe writes, “Before my first Chinese class, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the language. From mastering the 5 tones, to the intricacies of the 3,500 common characters, I did not know where to begin. After a year of intensive study, things began to click. I worried less about mixing up my tones, and words that had once intimidated me like “panda,” a tone away from the word for “men’s chest hair,” flowed off my tongue with ease. In fact, I began to enjoy Chinese for its simplicity.

Take for instance the word for stoplight 红绿灯 hónglǜdēng, meaning Red Green Light, or the word for foreigner, 外国人 wàiguórén, which translates to Outside Country Person.  Although one may not have formally studied the word for stoplight or foreigner, if he knows the definition of the individual characters, chances are he can glean an understanding. Many Chinese words can be deduced to their definitions as each character carries a meaning. Moreover, if one cannot recognize a character outright, the character’s radical, similar to a root word, can also help one infer the definition. The radical 氵shuǐ for instance, can be found in words related to water such as 海 hǎi, meaning “sea”, or 游泳 yóuyǒng, the verb “to swim”.”

One of the challenges for those learning Chinese is understanding  chéngyǔ.  Chéngyǔ are idioms usually derived from myths, stories or historical facts presented in ancient literature.  They express a meaning greater than the 4 characters used; they typically allude to an entire story and the moral embedded in the story [i].

Chinese Ink Blocks

Chinese ink blocks

Margaret writes, “Nevertheless, there are times when I am still humbled by Chinese. As a FLAS fellow in Beijing, I am using my grant to study Chinese in a one-on-one setting. Each day my teacher sets aside a chunk of time to drill me on idiom phrases comprised of 4 characters called 成语 chéngyǔ.  The ability to drop chéngyǔ into everyday conversation is the telltale sign of an advanced Chinese speaker; however it’s not always easy. One day, after mixing-up the characters for a common chéngyǔ, I earned myself a new nickname: 小狗熊 xiǎo gǒu xióng. The title gives reference to a small panda’s eating habits – picking up bamboo, taking a bit, and throwing the stalk down. In the eyes of my teacher, the way in which a panda discards his food is not unlike my retention of new chéngyǔ vocabulary. I seem to digest only the first bit of the phrase before discarding the rest. A little bit embarrassed, and a whole lot motivated, I know this term is one I won’t soon be forgetting.”

Student Margaret Walrod with Chinese MaskFLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education office of the U.S. Department of Education.  FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies.   Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply.  Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.




[i] “Chengyu.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 08/18/2016.