Why Speaking Great Chinese Isn’t Always So Great

Word of the Week: 

One of the downsides to speaking Mandarin is that I often hear people talking about me (in the third person) when I’m stood right next to them. It does feel a bit rude, but I just ignore it.

So when I got into the lift the other day and heard the cleaner ask my colleague 他是哪里人? tā shì nǎ lǐ rén? (he is where person/ where is he from?) I rather cynically thought to myself “oh no, here we go again…”

When I first started out learning Chinese I would have jumped at the opportunity to engage in exciting conversations such as “where are you from?” and “do you like Chinese food?” But now I’m not such a big fan of being repeatedly asked the same boring questions that I’ve already answered hundreds of times over.

So I did what I now usually do in these situations; pretend I don’t speak a word of Chinese and let someone else handle the perfunctory enquiry. It seems ironic that the better my Chinese got the more likely I was to pretend I didn’t speak it, but this time it didn’t matter because my cover was blown when my colleague replied 你问他,他中文可好了 nǐ wèn tā, tā zhōng wén kě hǎo le (ask him, his Chinese is really good)

In this situation my colleague not only forced me into a boring conversation I didn’t want to have, she also used the word 可 to add emphasis.

This can be done before adjectives, like saying 她可漂亮了 tā kě piào liang le (she’s really pretty)

It’s also common to hear 可 before the verb 是 shì to add emphasis. This is different to the use of 可是 kě shì that means “but”.

Imagine some school kids questioning what their teacher said. Their teacher might say 你不要质疑我,我可是你的老师 nǐ bú yào zhì yí wǒ, wǒ kě shì nǐ de lǎo shī (don’t doubt me, I’m your teacher) and herecould be used to add emphasis. I am your teacher! (that’s why you shouldn’t doubt me.

I’ve never seen Star Wars with Chinese subtitles, but I imagine The Empire Strikes Back might look something like this.


我可是你爸爸 wǒ kě shì nǐ bà ba

Darth Vader certainly didn’t say it in a matter of fact way, he said it with quite a bit of emphasis

Although it’s perfectly acceptable to use with both positive and negative verbs, on the occasions I’ve noticed it being used by Chinese people it has more often been negative. This is perhaps because people are more likely to be defiant when giving a negative statement than a positive one. For example, in the novel I’m currently reading there are some ghostly things happening and one of the characters defiantly says 我可不信邪 wǒ kě bù xìn xié (I do not believe in the paranormal)

This means that next time you’re out for food with some Chinese friends who are encouraging you to eat the more interesting delicacies of Chinese cuisine you could defiantly say我可不喜欢吃鸡爪 wǒ kě bù xǐ huan chī jī zhuǎ (I do not like eating Chickens feet) or if you’re in Nanjing you’ll most likely have the opportunity to say 我可不要吃鸭场 wǒ kě bù yào chī yā cháng (I do not want to eat duck intestines).