Learning Mandarin by watching… The Big Bang Theory? We’ll get to this in a minute but first…

A quick tangent about tones in Chinese

One of the reasons Mandarin Chinese is so intimidating to people is the notion that if you mess up the tones even just a little bit, then the meaning of what you’re trying to say can change drastically. This is the reason why It’s really important to focus on tones right from the start when learning Chinese!

I don’t want to scare you too much. It’s just important to emphasize that tones are not simply a small part of the Chinese language, they ARE the language.

It’s important to remember that in order to be understood when speaking Chinese, the very minimum you’ll need is a decent command of the four tones. Notice how I said tones and not pronunciation!

Pronunciation refers to the way the word is said and tone refers to the pitch of a word. Often times, if you pronounce something wrong, you can still be understood provided your tones are correct!

This is actually pretty cool because it means that having correct tones can save you when you mess up a word’s pronunciation. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t work the other way round.

For the rest of this blog post, we’re going to analyze Sheldon’s use of Mandarin in ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

So, without further ado, let’s get into it!

Sheldon speaks Chinese

sheldon speaks chinese on big bang theory

If you’re a fan of the hit show ‘The Big Bang Theory’ then you may have noticed that various characters throughout the show’s 10 seasons have had a go at speaking Mandarin.

The first instance of this is at the end of season one when Howard tries to teach Sheldon Mandarin (Chinese must just about be the only subject that Sheldon DOESN’T have a Ph.D. in!).

The reason that Sheldon wants to learn Mandarin is that he believes the local Chinese restaurant, Szechuan Palace, is passing orange chicken off as tangerine chicken (Oh heavens, how could they?).

Sheldon wants to confront them about this awful conspiracy and elicits Howard’s help to learn the phrase ‘给我看你用的陈皮’. ‘Show me your tangerine peels’.

Let’s break the sentence down:

给我看 (Gěi wǒ kàn) – Show me (literally: give me look)

你用的 (nǐ yòng de) – That which you use

陈皮 (chén pí)  – Tangerine peels – NOTE: The word for peel/rind, 皮 (pí), can be used in general to mean the outer skin of something. For example 饺子皮 (Jiǎozi pí) – means the outside part of a dumpling).

Languages clearly aren’t his strong suit but Sheldon’s pronunciation of this sentence wasn’t bad! I’ll give him 7/10!

When Sheldon is practicing this sentence, he gets tapped on the back by Penny and gets an awful fright. He yells out 吓死我了 ‘you frightened me’. Sheldon nailed this one. 9/10!

Let’s break it down:

吓 (xià) – to frighten, to scare

死 (sǐ) – death

我 (wǒ) – me

了 (le) – Here this particle ‘le’ is used for emphasis

So a more accurate translation might be ‘you scared me to death!’

You’ll see this construction being used quite a bit in Mandarin Chinese. The word ‘死了’ is often used to emphasize a negative adjective.

Let’s have a look at some examples using the construction adjective + 死了

我累死了 – ‘I’m so tired I could die’

我饿死了 – ‘I’m so hungry I could die’

死了 – ‘I’m so hot I could die’

死了 – ‘It’s so painful I could die’

So after all Sheldon’s practice, how were the results of his studies? Well, not very good, unfortunately.


He messed up his pronunciation!

At the end of the episode, Sheldon goes to Szechuan Palace with the intent of asking them to show him their tangerine peels. However, he messes up his pronunciation and instead says ‘鼻涕在哪儿’ (Bítì zài nǎ’er). Meaning, ‘Where is the snot?’. The word for snot in Chinese is bítì  (Bízi means nose).

Clearly what he meant to say was ‘陈皮在哪儿 (Chénpí zài nǎ’er)?’ – ‘Where are the tangerine peels?’

NOTE: His mistake here was saying 鼻涕 (bí tì) instead of 陈皮 (chén pí)

Let’s break it down:

鼻涕 (bí tì) – ‘snot’ or ‘mucous’

在哪儿 (zài nǎ ér) – ‘where’

Sheldon’s sentence construction is good, he just messes up the first part of the sentence by saying 鼻涕 instead of 桔皮. Unfortunately, I’ll have to give him a 4/10 for this one.

The construction ‘Object + 在哪儿?’ Means ‘Where is (Object)?’

Let’s look at some examples of this construction:

在哪儿? – Where is the book?

椅子在哪儿 ? – Where is the chair?

手机在哪儿? – Where is the cell phone?

‘在哪儿’ can also be used to ask where a place is. For example:

公园在哪儿? – Where is the park?

地铁站在哪儿? – Where is the subway station?

Just remember next time you want to confront your local Chinese restaurant about the authenticity of their food, have you pronunciation checked by a native speaker first!

Are you looking to learn Chinese? Or maybe you already speak a bit but want to improve your level? Well, we wrote an e-book about mastering Chinese (it’s the product of over 3 years of research and study) and in there we reveal methods and techniques for sky-rocketing your Chinese! Check out the e-book here.

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