Learning the lyrics to Chinese songs is a really fun way to learn new words and phrases in Chinese. It’s a great window into culture, too, to hear the poetic way sentiments are expressed in songs.
From the time I started learning Mandarin until now, I can remember many times when learning the lyrics to a new song taught me at least one new vocabulary word.
Here are six words/phrases that I can remember having to learn in order to understand the songs I was trying to sing along to.
1. 花 huā spotted, patterned
一只小花狗 (儿歌）Little Spotted Dog (traditional children’s song)
Early on, I learned that huā meant flower. Singing this children’s song with my kids expanded that definition for me. Huā can also mean spotted and is used to describe animals with spotted fur and also…pinto beans! 花豆 (Huā can also mean colorful, and it can also mean to spend time or money. Useful word, huh?)
2. 宇宙 yǔzhòu universe
Move over Taylor Swift (and the teardrops on your guitar), Superstar by S.H.E. is just about the most melodramatic pop love song I’ve ever heard. The lyrics express perhaps an unhealthy obsession with the gentleman in question with sentiments such as “I have no time to think about myself, I only feel what you feel” and “You rule, I worship [you], there’s no other way” and, after it’s clear the guy is leaving her, “If I forget myself, please help me remember me.” You get the picture. Somewhere in there, the singer says that the guy’s hand is not just a hand but her whole universe, which is how I came to learn yùzhòu.
3. 不下去 bùxiàqù can’t go on, can’t continue
I don’t think I would have learned this in a textbook. It just doesn’t seem like the type of thing anyone would think to include in formal lessons. However, after learning this phrase while singing along to this Taiwanese hit, I kept hearing people say it in everyday contexts.
4. 嫁 (给) jià (gěi) marry (female)
This is a pretty interesting little verb that can only mean a women marrying a man. It’s literally “given in marriage to,” which reminds me of the phrase traditionally used in American wedding ceremonies, “who gives this woman to be married?” However, in this duet, both the man and woman sing “nǐ yào jià gěi wǒ.” I guess it would have sounded too weird to have them singing different phrases at the same time?
5. 苏醒 sūxǐng come to, regain consciousness
This is one of my absolute favorite pop songs in Chinese. It’s a beautiful song and a great showcase for Han Hong’s incredible voice. There are actually a lot of great vocabulary items in this song, but sūxǐng is the one I remember having to look up. I had only learned xǐng ‘wake up’ before.
6 心窝 xīnwō heart of hearts, deep in one’s heart
Little Apple was a runaway hit and you can’t help but sing along to this ultra-catchy tune. You will probably also start dancing along, and I fully support you if that happens. Xīn wō literally means “heart nest” and I think it’s quite a romantic way of describing your heart of hearts.
Songs are a great way to improve your language ability, plus they give you some mad KTV skillz. Interested in learning a few songs? Here are a few websites to get you started:
- Hacking Chinese: 12 Songs to Learn Chinese and Expand Your Horizons
- Chinese Tools: Chinese Songs
- Dig Mandarin: 5 Popular Songs to Learn Chinese