What to Expect with Chinese Grammar

I’ve spent a nice chunk of my career on Chinese grammar, whether it’s explaining grammar structures in ChinesePod podcasts, working on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, or helping individual AllSet Learning clients. And two things that have become clearer and clearer to me are:

  1. There are certain things that all learners struggle with at different stages of acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (this is consistent with the SLA concept of “order of acquisition”)

  2. Most learners have no idea what to expect when it comes to the grammatical challenges that they’ll be up against (which can often make learners feel stupid for “just not getting it” immediately, not realizing that they’re struggling with something that all learners of Chinese struggle with)

To make a comparison with Spanish, most learners know from the beginning that they’re going to have to learn a bunch of verb conjugations for different tenses, gradually increasing in complexity over time. And beyond that, the subjunctive awaits. [Cue scary Spanish music]

OK, but what about Chinese? Many learners start with the patently false notion that “Chinese doesn’t really have grammar” or that “Chinese grammar is basically the same as English.” So they’re in for a fun little surprise there. This misconception doesn’t stand up long.

Chinese Grammar Hurdles

But beyond that, what is a learner to expect? The good news is that although different from English grammar, Chinese grammar isn’t horribly difficult. There are a few difficult points that deserve special attention, though, and I’ve created a new page on Sinosplice to point them out: Chinese Grammar Hurdles. The page is a rather simple list, but each point links to pages on the Chinese Grammar Wiki which have in-depth explanation (or will soon).

A few additional notes for beginners:

  • Chinese word order isn’t the same as English word order. Sure, you can think of examples in which the word order is exactly the same. “I love you” = 我爱你, etc. But don’t expect that to hold true quite so neatly as you start adding in times, places, adverbs, etc.
  • Particles are something new. Some of them, like and , aren’t too difficult to get the hang of. Others, like , will actually take a long time to get a handle on. But that’s OK… you learn the different uses of over time, and eventually it starts to gel, even if the accumulated understanding is not easily verbalized.
  • Measure words are also something new, but they don’t need much attention at first. This is because you can actually get by for quite a while using the general-purpose measure word . So if your Chinese teacher is totally drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started studying Chinese, something is wrong. Learn the mechanics with , but focus on language more central to basic communication before focusing on expanding your measure word vocabulary.

Good luck in your studies of Chinese grammar! Although some things feel weird and arbitrary (as with any foreign language), Chinese grammar also has a strong thread of logic running through it that you’ll start to appreciate the deeper you get. For many learners, it’s a source of great satisfaction. Hopefully knowing what to expect with Chinese grammar will help you stick with it for the long haul.

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