2.3 Family

In this lesson, you’ll learn to understand questions and answers about members of your family. Daniel Wang is a foreign service officer recently assigned to Taipei. Suppose he is talking to a Ms. Gao, who knows he’s married and wants to ask if he has any children. Here are the plural pronouns we, you and they.

wǒmen我们 we
nǐmen你们 you (plural)
tāmen他们 they

The plural pronouns are formed by adding neutral tone syllable men to the singular pronouns.

Here’s the verb to have.

yǒu to have

Here’s the word for children

háizi孩子 child/children

Like all Chinese nouns, háizi is neither singular nor plural. The noun phrase měiguóren for example could refer to any number of Americans – from one up to the whole population.

Here’s Ms. Gao’s question.

Nǐmen yǒu háizi ma?你们有孩子吗 Do you have any children?
Yǒu, wǒmen yǒu.友,我们友 Yes, we have.

Notice that the verb yǒu to have is one that can be repeated to say yes.

Check your comprehension.

Now listen as the conversation continues.

The word to have yǒu doesn’t use to form the negative.

Listen to the negative of the verb yǒu.

méi you没有 not to have

Notice that the basic low tone of yǒu to have becomes neutral tone in méi you not to have.

In the following exchange, two people are talking about why Mr. Liu’s English is so good.

Líu Xiānsheng yǒu Měiguo péngyou ma?刘先生美国朋友吗 Does Mr. Liu have any American friends?
Tā méiyou Měiguo péngyou.他没有美国朋友 He doesn’t have any American friends.
Tā yǒu Yīngguo péngyou.他英国朋友 He has an English friend.

Notice that Yīngguo péngyou can refer to an English friend or to English friends.

In Chinese, when you say there is a certain number of something, you have to follow the number with a bound word that we’ll call a counter. There are different counters for different classes of things. We used counters for some things in English. For instance, we say three head of cattle or a hundred sheets of paper.

In Chinese, counters are used in front of anything that is counted. The most general counter is -ge. You’ve already heard the counter -ge in phrases like něige fàndiàn which hotel. The counter -ge is also used for children. Five children therefore would be wǔge háizi.

Note that what is refered to as a “counter” in this text is more commonly refered to as a “measure word”.

Try translating the following number expressions.

Here’s how you ask How many children?

Jǐge háizi?几个孩子 How many children?

The bound word is followed by the counter -ge to make the question word jǐge how many. Notice that both numbers and questions about numbers are formed with counters. sānge three; jǐge how many.

Now that Ms. Gao knows the Wangs have children, listen to her ask how many they have.

Nǐmen yǒu jǐge háizi?你们有几个孩子 How many children do you have?
Wǒmen yǒu sānge háizi.我们有三个孩子 We have three children.

The question word jǐge how many is used when you expect the answer to be ten or less.

Let’s continue the conversation. Here’s the word for a boy.

nánháizi男孩子 boy

Here’s the word for a girl.

nǚháizi女孩子 girl

Notice that the syllable has the vowel ǚ, which which is different from the vowel ǔ.

In a phrase telling how many, the usual phrase for the number two is not used. Instead there is a special form liǎngge.

Listen to the following phrase.

liǎngge rén两个 two people

You might think of liǎngge as meaning a couple of where a couple means exactly two not several.

Now listen to this exchange.

Nǐmen yǒu jǐge nánháizi, jǐge nǚháizi?你们有几个男孩子,几个女孩子 How many boys and how many girls do you have?
Wǒmen you liǎngge nánháizi, yíge nǚháizi.我们有两个男孩子,一个女孩子 We have two boys and one girl.

Notice the Chinese doesn’t need a word for and in these sentences. Notice that the basic high tone in the word for one changes to a rising tone with the counter -ge, yíge.

Check your comprehension.

Listen to the following live conversation.

The conversation continues. Listen.

Shi nánháizi, shi nǚháizi?是男孩子,是女孩子 Are they boys or girls?
Tāmen dōu shi nǚháizi.她们都是女孩子 All of them are girls.

In Chinese, you can make an or question, asking which of two possible alternatives is true, by simply putting them together in one sentence with a pause between them.

Here’s the word for all

dōu all, all of

Word-for-word, the sentence Tāmen dōu shi nǚháizi, is They all are girls.

Check your comprehension.

The conversation continues. Listen.

Hú Xiānsheng, Hú Tàitai ne? Tāmen yǒu jǐge háizi?胡先生,胡太太呢?他们有几个孩子 How about Mr. and Mrs. Hu? How many children do they have?
Tāmen yǒu liǎngge háizi.他们有两个孩子 They have two children.
Shi nánháizi, shi nǚháizi?是男孩子,是女孩子 Are they boys or girls?
Dōu shi nǚháizi.都是女孩子 Both of them are girls.

In this exchange, the adverb dōu corresponds to the English word both rather than all.

In the sentence dōu shi nǚháizi, the pronoun tāmen has been dropped. This is the usual pattern.

Earlier, Mr. Wang said that all his children were all in China. Now listen to what he might said to describe a slightly different situation.

Nǐmen háizi dōu zài zhèli ma?你们孩子都在这里吗 Are all your children here?
Bù, liǎngge zài zhèli, yíge hǎi zài Měiguo.不,两个在这里,一个还在美国 Two are here, and one is still in America.

Here’s the adverb still

hǎi still

Check your comprehension.

Suppose Ms. Gao hadn’t known whether Mr. Wang was married. It is sometimes considered rude in Chinese to ask someone directly whether he is married. Instead, Ms. Gao could have found out indirectly by asking about who is in his family. Listen to the question Ms. Gao would use.

Nǐ jiāli yǒu shénme rén?你家里有什么人 What people are (there) in your family?

In this question, the word family would normally be taken to mean just those relatives living in the same household with you.

Here’s the expression for your family.

Nǐ Jiāli你家里 in your family

Jiāli itself, can be broken down into two parts: Jiā which you remember means home and which means in. Literally, the phrase nǐ jiāli means in your home. In this question, it’s extended to mean the people in your home or your family.

Notice that the character meaning in, inside takes the neutral tone in jiāli.

Now here’s the word for there is/there are.

yǒu there is/there are

That should sound familiar. In the sentence nǐ yǒu háiza ma do you have any children?, we translated yǒu as to have. But in the sentence nǐ jiāli yǒu shénme rén?, there’s no subject for to have. So the word yǒu is translated with the expression there are which doesn’t need a subject. Phrase by phrase, the question is literally in your family, there are, what people?.

Now here’s the question with Mr. Wang’s answer.

Nǐ jiāli yǒu shénme rén?你家里有什么人 What people are (there) in your family?
Yǒu wǒ tàitai gēn sānge háizi.有我太太跟三根三个孩子 There’s my wife and three children.

The answer, There’s my wife and three children, may sound a little to colloquial. You could also translate the answer just by listing the family members with no verb. Translating yǒu wǒ tàitai gēn sānge háizi as my wife and three children.

Here’s the word for and

gēn and
Note: In other contexts the word gēn is more commonly translated as with so Yǒu wǒ tàitai gēn sānge háizi could be translated as my wife (along) with three children.

As you’ve seen, Chinese often doesn’t have a word for and where we would expect it. When the items being joined by a parallel pair, there are usually just put next to each other. But when the items are not parallel, Chinese does use the word for and. Here, for instance, the word for children has a number in front of it, while the word for wife follows a possessive pronoun.

Check your comprehension.

Now listen as Mr. Wang asks about Ms. Gao’s family.

Nǐ jiāli yǒu shénme rén?你家里有什么人 What people are (there) in your family?
Jiù yǒu wǒ fùqin, mǔqin.就有我父亲,母亲 Just my father and mother.

Here’s the word for just/only.

jiù Just/only

Here’s the word for father.

fùqin父亲 father

Here’s the word for mother.

mǔqin母亲 mother

Check your comprehension.

A married person with no children would answer the question, nǐ jiāli yǒu shénme rén?, like this:

Here’s a live conversation for review:

Pronunciation Practice