Describing family relationships in English is usually pretty straightforward and light on the details. There are only eight sets of words (a total of 15). You’ve got mother and father, uncle and aunt, cousin, brother and sister, niece and nephew, husband and wife, daughter and son, and grandmother and grandfather. Even in a family with baby boomer parents (my mom is one of nine), you can pretty much take care of the entire cast of characters with just those few words.
- relative age (who’s older and younger)
- side of the family (mother’s or father’s)
- gender (male or female)
- status (in-law or blood relative)
That complicates things and gives you 23 sets of words (a total of 46) to learn. Adding to that, if for example your father has 5 brothers, four are older and one is younger, you have to refer to them as “first uncle [that's older than my dad] on my father’s side” (一伯父), “second uncle [that's older than my dad] on my father’s side” (二伯父), until you get to “uncle that’s younger than my dad on my father’s side” (叔叔).
So obviously, Mandarin requires you to think about relationships on a whole other conceptual level.
To be fair, in English these distinctions exist, too. You might feel the occasional need to outline ”step” or “half” relationships, “ex” relationships, and create “in-law” designations. You might also want to add intergenerational lables like “grand” to your nieces, nephews, and other family members or “second” or third” to describe generational layers in your relationship with cousins. We can even say “older (or eldest)” or “younger (or youngest”) to designate position within an immediate family. All of these terms add a layer of complexity to how you describe family relationships in English. But note, all the words that I listed are optional “modifiers” that you can add on to your existing vocabulary, not a whole new set of (mandatory) words that you have to memorize and consistently use.
Fun Activities to Help in Learning Family Relationships
Sometimes, even though I feel like I’ve been studying Mandarin forever, I still occasionally get some of the relationships mixed up. I assume it’s because I’ve never tried to force myself to think in such specificity about who is related to whom on my family tree—well that’s not entirely true. In my father’s culture, you have to announce how each sibling ranks in relative age every time you say that person’s name. But even still, family mapping in Mandarin is still not completely “native” to how my brain works. That ends today, and I suggest that if you are working on learning family designations, you might want to try some of these activities out, too.
The Photo Family Tree
A few of my friends have a designated craft day every month or so. This month, I’m going to make a homemade family tree in Mandarin. Here’s what I plan to do:
Supplies: print outs of family photos, large poster board, scissors, a marker, glue or tape
Task: Create an elaborate family tree with pictures of all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and their spouses on both my mom and dad’s side. Instead of using their names, I’ll write their family designations in Mandarin under the photo. When I’m done, I’ll hang it up in my room, so I have several pictures of my family members and a reminder of family relationships (in Mandarin).
My intuition is that if I can make it personal to me, I’ll be able to remember the designations a lot better.
Alternative: If you’re tech savy, you can do this online easily with digital photos and online family tree software.
Alternative: If you don’t have a big family or if you’re looking for something more interesting, you can create an imaginary family or create a family tree of a celebrity.
[Update: Using software is way easier especially if your family is big and complicated! But if you're a crafty person, it's worth a try.]
If diagramming an entire tree is too much, it could be fun to make family flashcards. Again, it will work best if you use pictures of your actual family and label the back with the designation.
You could use an imaginary or celebrity family here as well. However, in my opinion, if you create an imaginary family, it’s best that you also create a family tree, so you are not tempted to cheat (you can double check to see how people are connected).
As you already know, I love creating games. So, I suggest that if you’d like to do an activity with a friend who is also learning Mandarin, you could create an interactive (but simple) board game. I found one for ESL learners here. Just translate the questions into Mandarin (or create your own similar questions). The example board game is simple enough that you could actually play it by yourself.
Harder Alternative: Create an entire imaginary family. Write down their names, ages, occupations, and other relevant information. This will allow you to practice a lot of related vocabulary that could reasonably come up in a conversation about family. Play a board game based on the answers your invented family would give.
Two(+) Player Bingo
Set up: Write down/ type out all 46 family designations in Mandarin on small pieces of paper. Cut those out and put them in a container to call out when you’re ready to play the game.
Option 1: All players create a family profile (or use their own family members). Instead of using numbers, create a board with pictures. When the announcer calls out a family designation, look for the picture of the family member who fits that description and mark the square. Play until one person gets Bingo.
Option 2: If you’re doing reading practice, randomly select 24 family designations (don’t forget the “Free Space”). Write down the characters for each of those designations on your board. Listen for the name of the family designation that matches one of the squares on your Bingo card.
Added difficulty: If you’re feeling really confident in your listening and reading skills, create two Bingo cards listing all 46 words (and a few repeats). Play both boards simultaneously.
If you’ve done the family tree and created cards, just photocopy the cards to create doubles (or print two copies). Play Go-Fish with a partner. You can ask, “Does your family have a(n) —?” The other players can respond “It doesn’t have (one)” or “Yes, my family has (one).” Obviously, you should play the game entirely in Mandarin.
Generally, try to pay more attention to the details of family relationships when you’re speaking in English. Next time you have a conversation with someone about their family (or when you meet someone new over small talk), ask for the specifics. “Oh, you have a brother? Is he older or younger?” When you watch TV (especially when it’s in Mandarin), listen out for words that describe family members and mentally diagram the relationships.
Other than that, I just recommend that you get creative and have fun with different ways of making these special connections between different family members stick! If you used a special method to learn family relationships, feel free to share that method in the comments.