Versatility of Chinese words

English is full of polysemes which are words that are written in the same way and have multiple related meanings. An example of polysemy would be the words; ‘mole’ – a small burrowing animal, and ‘mole’ – a person burrowing for information without wanting to get found out. However, ‘mole’ – a blemish on the skin is a homonym, i.e. a word spelt and pronounced the same but with an altogether different meaning.

If you want to learn Chinese in China, Keats School in Kunming can prepare you for similar linguistic challenges.

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意思 (yisi) is an example of a word in Chinese that has a variety of uses with related meanings that can often lead to confusion for non-native speakers. 意思 (yisi) generally connotes ‘meaning’, for example 这是什么意思? (zhe shi shenme yisi), but depending on how it is used it can also have various nuances in meaning. A common phrase in Chinese is 不好意思 (bu hao yisi) which equates literally as ‘not good meaning’, but would commonly translate as ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’. 不好意思 can also have the meaning of embarrassed. 有意思 (you yisi) or 没意思 (mei yisi) would translate literally as ‘have meaning’ and ‘no meaning’ respectively, but when translated properly take on the meaning of interesting and not interesting. The latter could also connote ‘no meaning’ used, for instance, when someone saw a nonsensical image and wanted to comment on it. In the same way if someone saw something interesting they could comment ‘很有意思’ (hen you yisi) = very interesting.

Then are examples that slightly veer away from the original word but are still related etymologically. 小意思 (xiao yisi), literally ‘small meaning’, has a slightly more complex cultural meaning. We would most likely translate it as ‘a token gesture’, or ‘a small token of appreciation’ with an emphasis on modesty. Someone might self-deprecatingly describe a gift to someone else as a 小意思.

A phrase which is very difficult to explain, let alone translate, is 意思意思 (yisi yisi, lit. trans. meaning meaning) . Again, the general meaning would be a token gesture, with modest connotation, but this time, maybe with a slight emphasis on the action being something that ought to be done as natural. Discussing a colleague’s birthday present some workers might decide to buy somethings a token gesture but also as it would be right and natural to do so – 意思意思.

Here is a well-known joke in Chinese translated into English and with a literal translation to show the confusing humorous element of the conversation:

A student wants to offer his teacher a red envelope with money in. This, ambiguously, could be out of respect for the teacher or maybe with an intent to secure better grades

      Teacher:“你这是什么意思?”       What’s the meaning of this?

  Student:“没什么,意思意思。”     Nothing, meaning meaning

  Teacher:“你这就不够意思了。”   You giving me this is not enough meaning

  Student:“小意思,小意思。”       Small meaning, small meaning

  Teacher:“你这人真有意思。”      You really have meaning

  Student:“其实也没有别的意思。” Actually there is no special meaning

  Teacher:“那我就不好意思了。”     Well, no good meaning

  Student:“是我不好意思。”             No, it’s me that has no good meaning

A translation without the humour might look like this

Teacher: What’s the meaning of this?

Student: Nothing, just a gesture (as you are my teacher and I respect you I should offer this)

Teacher: This means nothing. (here there is some ambiguity – does the teacher mean not enough money to bribe him/her or that the student should do more to earn respect than offer money.)

Student: It’s just a token gesture.

Teacher: You really are interesting (sarcastically implying the student has intention to bribe the teacher)

Student: Actually, there’s no special meaning

Teacher: Well then, I’m somewhat embarrassed.

Student: No, it’s me that’s embarrassed

So, we can see that Chinese also has polysemy, but can manifest in even simple words that can become quite confusing when the meaning strays further and further from the original source – 有意思。

Trip to Dali

Dali. Having lived in Kunming and learned Chinese at Keats School for the last three months, one does not go by without hearing of Dali and Lijiang – the two famous centres for culture of northern Yunnan. Chinese and non-Chinese tourists alike visit both these cities on a frequent basis. From Kunming, they make convenient weekend breaks.

Being the super-organised person I am, I had left the ticket-booking until the very last minute, on a Friday evening no less. Still, we were lucky enough to secure some hard seats on the last train, leaving at 23:39. Now, they say ‘hard seat’, but they’re not really all that hard – the thing that kills is the 90 degree angle of the seat to the back. So, after a six hour journey of leaning on some really forgiving fellow-travellers, we arrived in Dali.

When we got to Dali, we stayed in the Jade Emu – a hostel where basically every owner of a copy of Lonely Planet flocks to. Still, it was a VERY nice hostel. The best thing about it was the invitation to do some English teaching to a group of four six-year-old girls. It was really very fun; I took some ideas from my own schooling and held a competition to pique the girls’ interests.

Dali is right beside Erhai Lake, (洱海胡) so named due to its similarity to a shape of the outer ear. 耳 is the character for ear, if you look closely, or imaginatively rather, you can see how the pictogram really looks like an ear. Anyway…We had intended to cycle around this lake, but when we asked the guy at reception, we decided that a two-day cycle was rather beyond our capabilities. So instead we decided to do about a quarter of the lake in one day and then cycle back.

So, having successfully procured a Giant and a Merida, we set off on our adventure. On the way to the lake from the Old Town, we cycled along a cobbled path, in between fields and fields of intense greenness. Reaching the lake, we cycled onto some sort of very long groyne and sat for a while to admire the lake and the small boys fishing. We also stopped off in the occasional village, all of which were rather quaint and quiet, very peaceful indeed.

Whilst cycling we made a friend along the way, he gave his name as Ma, (马). Ma was a history student who was taking a short holiday to tour around some of Yunnan. As quite often happens in china, being two girls travelling by ourselves, any male friend we make along the way feels an inevitable responsibility to become our guide and some kind of protector. Ma was no exception! However, the care and attention was sweet. Ma took us to see the Three Pagodas, a set of three very tall towers just outside of central Dali. These towers are very old, the architecture rather striking and an example of Bai architecture, and dates from 824 AD.

Dali itself is rather charming. The architecture looks authentically old and Chinese (to my vastly inexpert eye anyhow), if a little modernised by the vast array of shops and coffee places. Along the main street are a lot of shops selling pantaloon-like trousers (on which of course some of my own money was spent), silver, leather, wooden and even yak bone jewellery. Dali felt like a very relaxed, easy-going place. A nice short break for a weekend or so.

Learning Burmese gains popularity in Singapore

Since opening its doors to welcome global travelers and businesses a few years ago, Myanmar has experienced significant growth in its economy, thanks to a meteoric rise in business and tourism activities. And as interest in the country has grown, the demand for Burmese language classes has also risen sharply.

Guus Goorts, founder of Singapore-based language school directory website yago.sg, puts it this way: “When we built the site in 2010, Burmese was entirely off the radar. While we included many pretty obscure languages in our database, we never thought of Burmese at the time. No one even asked about it,” he said. “Now we see that most major language schools in Singapore have started providing classes. Burmese language is on its way to become as mainstream as other regional languages such as Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian in Singapore.”

Dr. Lemmy Teo, director of The Language Academy says those who have expressed interest in learning Burmese do so for many reasons.

“There seem to be a variety of motivations like tourism, business and cultural interest,” he said. “So far, we’ve seen a significant increase in demand, and we plan to continue to offer Burmese language classes”

Shaun Cheng opened the doors to learnburmese.com.sg in October 2014 after learning firsthand how hard it was to find Burmese language classes.

“My partner is Burmese, and I wanted to learn Burmese so I could understand more about her culture,” he said. “It was very difficult to find a teacher, and when I finally found one, we decided to work together to form language instruction groups in Singapore with just a few students per class so it’s easier to learn and interact.

So far, Cheng says he’s seen plenty of interest from a wide range of people.

“Some have business dealings in Myanmar or plans to do business there, while others plan to travel to the country, have a Burmese partner, or have a spiritual interest in the culture,” he said. “For me, running these language classes isn’t really a business, I really run it as a a way to bring like-minded individuals together.”

For Businesses, a New Playing Field

One of the driving factors in learning Burmese: Business expansion. For many international corporations, Myanmar represents a powerful new opportunity to expand their presence on a global scale. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. describes Myanmar as “an underdeveloped economy with many advantages, in the heart of the world’s fastest-growing region,” and says the country is poised to grow its economy “from $45 billion in 2010 to more than $200 billion in 2030—creating upward of 10 million non-agricultural jobs in the process.”

In 2013, Myanmar hosted more than 900 companies at the the World Economic Forum’s Asia Summit, including major world players like Mitsubishi, General Electric and Coca-Cola, which has plans to invest at least $200 million in the country by 2018.

Understanding and speaking Burmese will be vital to anyone hoping to work in the country, and because learning opportunities have been limited, those who enroll in classes now will be ahead of the curve, so they may expect a far wider range of employment opportunities in the developing economy.

Welcome, World!


Businesses aren’t the only ones flocking to Myanmar. Tourism has also increased sharply, from an average of 300,000 visitors per year in 2011 to an anticipated 5 million by 2015 and 7 million by 2020.

Kyaw Lin Oo, Singapore-based Burmese founder of Scapetour.com, says the growth in tourism is already having a major impact.

“We’ve done very little marketing for our online bus ticket booking service in Myanmar, but we’ve see a growing number of foreign travelers using our service,” he said. “The predicted increase in Myanmar tourism means a huge jump for tourism-related services to cater the rapid growing demand.”

Tour operators as well as those who plan to travel to the country understand that knowing the language is the key to the richest experiences, enabling them to unlock sites and experiences that otherwise would go unexplored by those who are unable to communicate in depth with the Burmese-speaking population.

More learning options

The Language Academy and Cheng’s www.learnburmese.com.sg aren’t the only places that are expanding their offerings to include Burmese. Christopher Chaw, marketing executive at Spring College International (www.spring.edu.sg), says the school has added Burmese to its regular offerings.

“We did start a few classes of Burmese both at Jurong East and Bishan campuses, and the response has been good,” he notes. “Previously, we only offered Burmese classes on an as-needed, one-on-one basis because of low demand, but now the demand has risen sufficiently for us to offer regular classes.”

Leon Ling, director of Lingo (www.lingo.edu.sg), agrees.

“We’ve noticed an increased interest in learning Burmese among our students, and we’ve received requests about classes in the language,” he said. “As a result, we’re opening Burmese language classes.”

Learning Burmese is becoming increasingly popular for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is this: Understanding a culture from its own perspective depends on knowing the language that supports its native population. Enrolling in Burmese classes is one more way to experience a richer, more culturally diverse life, and an ideal way for Singapore residents to connect in meaningful ways with their geographic neighbors.

Where to learn French in Singapore?

haute couture

“Haute Couture” is French for “high fashion”

There are many good reasons to learn French. It’s the language of fashion, arts and gastronomy, and a working language of organisations like the UN, WTO, FIFA, EU and many more.

French is a relatively popular European language to learn in Singapore, and thus it’s no surprise that our directory sports a good selection of French courses.

Which one to pick? It depends on your objectives and situation.

Three French-only language schools in Singapore

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Where to learn Korean in Singapore?

Korean / English Keyboard

Korean keyboard. Photo by knittymary

If you want to learn Korean in Singapore, you’ll find no lack of language schools that offer Korean classes.

In our directory, you can find an overview of most Korean classes that are available in Singapore.

There are so many that you may be a bit bewildered on how to choose.

Many discussions in forums and blogs are just about comparing one school to another and finding the “best” one.

But what’s “best” for your friend, may not be best for you. It depends on what you want to achieve. Here are a few common scenarios and suggestions on what to choose.

Scenario 1: You’re a beginner Korean learner and want to study part-time (evenings or weekends)

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English classes for adults. Where to find them in Singapore?

English teacher at blackboardThere are English classes in Singapore. But you will see that classes for children are most heavily promoted.

What if you are an adult, and want to improve your English? Where to go?

You can find all of the classes mentioned below in our directory. Just go to http://yago.sg/directory/english and select the options to filter.

But which class is good for you? In this article, I’ll cover the most common options:

  1. Full-time English classes
  2. Evening / weekend classes with subsidy
  3. Evening / weekend classes without subsidy

1. Full-time English classes

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Where to learn English in Singapore?

Business meeting

Speak English well and be confident in your next business meeting

Are you trying to find out where to learn English in Singapore, for yourself or someone else? This article is meant to provide a starting point.

There isn’t really one best place to learn English in Singapore. It depends on your situation and what you want to achieve.

Below are a few questions to ask yourself. Depending on the answer, I will have recommendations for you, which you can use when going through the English directory on Yago, which has a ton of options to choose from: http://yago.sg/directory/english.

Many people I speak to who ask me about English courses, are asking for a relative, friend or foreign spouse. But to keep things simple, I’ll use “You” to refer to the student in this article.

Do you have time to learn full-time?

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Eight ways to learn Chinese in Singapore

Chinese characters on a blackboard

Of course, there are more modern ways of learning Chinese

Is there a secret formula for learning Chinese? I think what comes closest to a guaranteed path to success is focusing on the actions you take on a day-to-day basis.

Find a mix of activities that you can sustain long term. In the best period of my (part-time) Chinese learning, I spent an average of at least an hour a day on classes and homework. Every week. For two years.

Should I tell you exactly how I did it? I don’t think that would be very helpful, because what worked to keep me going and engaged, might not work for you.

So you’ll have to figure out your own secret formula. Language learning activities are the “ingredients” to any secret recipe. Here are four ways to learn Chinese in Singapore, and four that will work anywhere, for you to experiment with!

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Where to learn Mandarin in Singapore?

Chinese calligraphyWhether you just landed or are a born and bred Singaporean, if you see this post, chances are that you’re looking to learn Mandarin in Singapore. What’s the best place?

Actually, there isn’t one best choice to recommend everyone. It depends on many factors.

The Chinese courses directory on Yago allows you to narrow down the options based on the type of course (full-time, part-time, private, online) and location (East, Central etc.).

But how to decide what type of course? Or which school is more suitable? This post covers the most important things to think about when making a decision.

Factor 1: How much time do you have? What is your schedule?

When I arrived in Singapore in 2006, I came to live with my then girlfriend, now wife. I had no job offer, and as a recent graduate, it took me some time to secure a job.

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Does learning a foreign language really benefit your career?

Simply learning a language in itself does not necessarily land you a job. But depending on your situation, knowing several languages can still have advantages for your career. Here’s a quick video of a presentation I did on the topic.

To find what speaking several languages in the workplace does to how others see you, I asked a question on LinkedIn:

In the workplace, do you perceive someone who speaks several languages differently from someone who speaks only one, assuming that they otherwise have a similar skill set?

I got a diverse range of replies, but there are some common characteristics that were generally attributed to a person speaking several languages:

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