In our previous articles, we’ve looked at celebrities and sports people who can speak Chinese. To continue tracing Chinese in Western culture, today, let’s look at something quite rare: Mandarin Chinese in American sitcoms.
Mandarin Chinese in American sitcoms
TV shows have become a vital part of our lives. There’s probably no person left on the planet who hasn’t watched or heard of “Friends” or “Game of Thrones”. TV shows are everywhere! And they can be not only a source of entertainment before you go to bed – they can be helpful, too. You can learn new things, see different cultures, and sometimes, hear different languages.
This is what we are going to talk about in this post. Chinese is a popular, but still an exotic language, that’s why it’s always a surprise to see someone speak Chinese in a movie or a TV show. It makes us wonder: was it hard for them to remember these phrases? How good is their Chinese, really?
1. Mandarin Chinese in “The Big Bang Theory”
There’re fans of The Big Bang Theory (生活大爆炸 Shēnghuó Dà Bàozhà) all over the globe!
It’s become one of the most popular and successful TV sitcoms, won tons of awards, and became one of the symbols of modern culture. Who doesn’t know Sheldon Cooper?
If you a fan of this show, you might’ve noticed that throughout the series, main characters spoke not only English, but also practiced Chinese. Yes – some of them can speak Mandarin!
Big Bang Theory Characters Who Spoke Chinese
And can you remember who exactly spoke Mandarin?
First, it was Howard Wolowitz. In the pilot episode, he wishes Penny to have a “good shower” in French and Mandarin:
洗个痛快澡 Xǐ ge tòngkuai zǎo (“Enjoy your shower”)
In “The Hawking Excitation”, Howard rejects Sheldon’s request to see Stephen Hawking in several languages, including Chinese 不 bù (“No.”).
He doesn’t pronounce the tones very well though. The phrases sound as if he was singing. According to Mr. Chen in “The Dumpling Paradox”, Howard’s Mandarin is actually very poor. Mr. Chen says: “Where is your annoying little friend who thinks he speaks Mandarin?”
Big Bang Theory Episodes Featuring Spoken Mandarin
But if Howard’s Chinese, despite the fact that it’s not perfect, still understandable and pretty good, Sheldon’s attempts to learn Mandarin turn out to be an epic fail.
In one of the episodes, Sheldon decides to learn Mandarin. He does that so that he can confront a Chinese restaurant called Sichuan Palace: he argues that they’re trying to “pass off orange chicken as tangerine chicken”.
Howard was glad that Sheldon finally decided to learn Chinese:
[Howard: You know, I’m really glad you decided to learn Mandarin.
Howard: Once you’re fluent, you’ll have a billion more people to annoy instead of me.]
Later, when Sheldon practices his Chinese, Penny taps him on the shoulder and scares him. He yells out:
吓死我了! Xiàsǐ wǒ le! (‘You scared me!’)
Big Bang Theory Scene (Almost Entirely) in Mandarin Chinese
Finally, after he took a few Mandarin lessons with Howard, he decides to go to the “Sichuan Palace” himself, and talk to Mr. Chen. During this conversation, he makes all sorts of mistakes trying out his Mandarin for the first time.
Howard helps Sheldon learn the sentence:
给我看你用的陈皮 Gěi wǒ kàn nǐ yòng de chénpí (‘Show me the tangerine peel you use.’)
At the end of the episode, Sheldon goes to Sichuan Palace as he wants to ask them this question. However, he messes up his pronunciation and instead, says:
鼻涕在哪儿? Bítì zài nǎr? (‘Where is the snot?’)
As you can notice, he uses 鼻涕 bítì (nose, snot) instead of 陈皮chénpí (tangerine peel).
Let’s check out the whole scene!
[Sheldon (in Mandarin): 鼻涕在哪儿? 鼻涕! Bítì zài nǎr? Bítì! (Show me your mucus! Your mucus!)
Owner (in Mandarin): 擤干净鼻涕后快走快走。Xǐng gānjìng bítì hòu kuàizǒu kuàizǒu. (Blow your own nose and go away.)
Sheldon (in Mandarin): 这不是柳丁脚踏车。Zhè bùshì liǔdīng jiǎotàchē. (This is not a tangerine bicycle.)
Owner (in English): Crazy man. Call the police.
Sheldon (in Mandarin): 不必打给图书馆。鼻涕在哪儿。Búbì dǎ gěi túshūguǎn. Bítì zài nǎr? (No. Don’t call the library. Show me your mucus.)
(Leonard and Penny are seen entering, and then leaving again quickly.)
Sheldon (in Mandarin): 猛牛在我的床上！很多很多猛牛！Měngniú zài wǒde chuángshàng! Hěnduō hěnduō měngniú! (Oxen are in my bed! Many, many oxen!) Oy Vey!]
So, next time you want to start an argument with your local Chinese restaurant, make sure you got your pronunciation sorted!
How good/bad was their Chinese, really?
Now it’s time to give Howard and Sheldon stars and test their Chinese level.
Howard: Despite some problems with pronunciation (tones are always a struggle), Howard’s intonation and command of grammar and, without even taking into account the fluency of his speech, is quite incredible. And the phrases sound very natural. His Chinese is not perfect, but it’s really good!
Chinese level: ★★★★☆
Sheldon: The scene in the Sichuan restaurant is funny, because Sheldon makes so many mistakes in tones and pronunciation, but the scenes before show that his level of Chinese is quite decent. His answer to Penny “吓死我了” is really good and natural!
Chinese level: ★★★☆☆
2. Mandarin Chinese in “Friends”
There’s no need to introduce Friends (老友记 Lǎoyǒu Jì or 六人行 Liù Rénxíng). Six friends, one coffee shop and tons of good humor!
Ross Speaks Chinese
Ross had a trip to China at the end of the first season. They didn’t show it, but in the airport scene we can see that Ross has headphones on, and is listening to the tape called ‘How To Speak Chinese’. Occasionally, he says some Chinese phrases out loud. He says:
再见，我的房间要窗子。Zàijiàn, wǒ de fángjiān yào chuāngzi. (Bye, my room need a window).
When the tape is over, he says:
你笑什么？Nǐ xiào shénme? (’What are you laughing at?’)
That’s all! But Ross is a good student and can repeat after the tape correctly.
How good is his Chinese, really?
Surprisingly, he’s pronunciation is really good! Despite his looks (a man with his headphones on, trying to learn how to speak a language with the tape) and his accent, it’s easy to understand what he says. He speaks the language clearly and, if he ever tried, he could definitely speak fluently in a short time! So perhaps these tapes could be helpful – at least, when it comes to pronunciation and phonetics.
Chinese level: ★★★★☆
3. Mandarin Chinese in “How I Met Your Mother”
How I Met Your Mother (老爸老妈的浪漫史 Lǎobà Lǎomā de Làngmànshǐ) is a popular American sitcom that originally aired on CBS from September 19, 2005. The plot is quite simple: Ted (Josh Radnor) recounts to his children, through a series of flashbacks, the journey he and his four best friends took leading up to him meeting their mother.
Barney Stinson Speaks Chinese
Barney Stinson is one of the five main characters, portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris. He first meets Ted Mosby in MacLaren’s Pub, fancying himself as Ted’s best friend, despite Ted’s protests. Despite of his behavior, Barney is a really clever guy who can speak some foreign languages include Ukrainian, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and German.
How I Met Your Mother Episode Featuring Mandarin
In one episode, Marshall and Lily escape to Atlantic City, but they discover that getting married in Atlantic City isn’t as easy as getting married in Las Vegas. They find a boat captain willing to marry them, but he wants $5000 to perform the ceremony. Throughout the episode, Barney runs into a few Chinese men who he has brief but familiar conversations with, leaving the rest of the gang puzzled. He actually spoke reasonably accurate Mandarin Chinese during this episode!
[Chinese friend: Hey, it’s Barney! Barney, 好久不见! Hǎojiǔ bùjiàn! (It’s been so long!) 你跑去哪里了？Nǐ pǎo qù nǎlǐ le? (‘Where have you been?’) Suit up!
Barney: 你太疯了! Nǐ tài fēngle! (‘You guys are too much.’) 希望等一下看到你! Xīwàng děng yīxià kàn dào nǐ! (‘I’d like to see you guys later!’)
Chinese friend: 好好好，今天晚上看到你! Hǎohǎo hǎo, jīntiān wǎnshàng kàn dào nǐ! (‘Yes, yes, we’ll see you tonight.’) 一定会。。。Yīdìng huì… (‘It will definitely’) be legen–wait for it–dary! Legendary!]
Barney is sure he can win them the money. He joins a confusing Chinese game called Xing Hai Shi Bu Xing (“行還是不行”, Chinese for ‘Deal or No Deal’) that no one else understands. He says some random words during the game, but most can be guessed from context:
- 转 zhuǎn (‘Spin” [the wheel]’)
- 一起 yīqǐ (‘Together’)
- 总部 zǒngbù (‘[I bet] everything)
- 这个 zhège (‘This one’), etc.
And it turns out that Barney wins! He says in Chinese with excitement:
- 我赢了！Wǒ yíngle! (‘I won!’)
How good is his Chinese, really?
He actually spoke reasonably accurate Mandarin Chinese during this episode! Maybe he had a teacher to train him to pronounce these phrases – but they sound pretty natural and easy to understand. There are some problems with pronunciation, but it’s okay. His Chinese is good, no doubt!
Chinese level: ★★★★☆
Have you seen these episodes? Have you noticed Mandarin Chinese spoken there? Do you agree with our rating?
Share your thoughts with us on Twitter at @thatsmandarin – we are always happy to hear from you!