There’s a certain type of question, phrased in the negative, which is answered entirely differently depending on the conventions of the language you’re speaking in. Take this English language exchange for example:
A: You’re not going?
B: No. (I’m not going.)
In English, we say no to the idea of going. Not going, therefore “no.”
Chinese works differently, however:
A: [You’re not going?] 你不去了？
B: [Yeah. (I’m not going.)] 嗯。（我不去了。）
In Chinese, we say yes to the statement itself. “Not going” is correct, therefore “yes.”
This is all fairly well-known stuff. Any English teacher in China is well aware of this issue, and hopefully anyone learning Chinese is as well. Even after you know about this difference, though, it takes some getting used to. You have to think about it for a while.
What I didn’t expect is that this seems to be just as hard for my bilingual kids. Both of my kids attend all-Chinese kindergarten, but I speak with them entirely in English at home. For the most part, they’re quite fluent in English for their ages, but occasionally Chinglish creeps in a little. How they respond to negative questions is another example of this: they respond the Chinese way.
So I’m constantly having conversations like this:
A: You’re not going?
A: You mean “no, I’m not going,” or “yes, I am going?”
B: No, I’m not going.
Not a big deal, but my 3-year-old is especially stubborn about answering these questions the Chinese way. He’ll get it eventually, though.
Still, if you’re feeling annoyed as a learner of Chinese that these are still tripping you up, you may take some consolation that even children, who supposedly “absorb language effortlessly like a sponge,” struggle with this. The big difference is that they don’t get discouraged, and they never ever give up.
My daughter is 6 years old now, and aside from yearly trips to Florida, she’s grown up entirely in Shanghai. Her school is a Chinese school, not an international or bilingual school, when means that I’ve had to make extra efforts if I want her to grow up bilingual. I’ve always practiced “One Parent One Language” (“OPOL”), meaning that I never speak to my daughter in Chinese, even though I’m observing her acquisition of both Chinese and English with keen interest.
Since she’s grown up in Shanghai and attends a school where Mandarin is spoken most of the time, it’s safe to assume that my daughter’s Chinese language skills are going to be a bit more dominant. For example, I get the feeling that she’s mastering irregular verbs a bit more slowly than American kids might. I’m not worried about it; her accent is fine, and she sounds like an American 6-year-old most of the time. I’ve certainly never felt she was making mistakes that Chinese learners of English might make. …until recently.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my daughter confuses the words “make” and “let” in her English. This is a mistake frequently made by Chinese learners of English. In Chinese, 让 has both meanings, and context makes the rest clear. In English, if you don’t get these words straight, your English sounds quite weird (and non-native). So I definitely took notice when my daughter said things like:
*”She was really mean, and let me cry.”
*”He always lets me laugh.”
*”What you said let me angry.”
In every case, the word “make” should be used, and the word “let” is used instead. (I’ve never observed the confusion going in the other direction.) She’s generally receptive to corrections of her English (she catches on pretty quickly when I correct her on her usage of irregular verbs, for example), but this one has been a bit more stubborn.
I’m curious: do any monolingual (or at least not growing up in China) English-speaking kids make this mistake? Or is it something particular to this situation? I expect it will works its way out in time, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing happens with my son (who is now 3).
At AllSet Learning we’re working hard on the follow-up volumes. If you’ve ever been an editor of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, use the U.S. Apple App/iBooks Store, and are interested in a promotional iBooks version, send me an email. If you’re looking forward to our forthcoming B1 and/or B2 volumes, and you’ve noticed any kinds of problems or shortcomings with the current B1/B2 content on the web version of the wiki, also send me an email. We need all the help we can get, and we’d be happy to thank wiki users for significant contributions with a promotional copy of those iBooks versions as well. (Apple allows publishers to share a limited number of free promo ebooks, but Kindle does not.)
I’ve teamed up with Chinese Buddy on a new song, and this time the grammar point is a very basic one related to saying “have” (有) and “don’t have” (没有). Besides Chinese language, it seems that our collaborations revolve around anti-materialism and food (last time was stinky tofu).
Anyway check it out, and show it to any kids you know learning Mandarin:
Spotted this sign on 老外街 (“Laowai Street”) on Hongmei Road (虹梅路).
First of all, “xu” in pinyin is how you spell the word for “SHHH” (the “shushing” sound) in Chinese. It even has a character: 嘘.
Second, the translation “don’t be too noisy still get happy” is understandable, I guess, but let’s look at the original Chinese:
声音小一点 一样HIGH 得起来
So 声音小一点 refers to one’s voice being a little quieter. The “if” part and the “you” subject are implied.
The 一样means “the same,” but here it’s more naturally translated as “equally” or “just as.”
The “HIGH” in Chinese is not (usually) some kind of drug-induced state, but rather the “natural high” of just getting all excited and having a blast. There could be some drinking involved (think karaoke), but the emphasis is on the fun had.
The interesting thing here is that the word “HIGH” in Chinese is translated as “happy” in the English version. In fact, a co-worker of mine told me that she used to assume that the Chinese word “high” (sometimes written as “嗨“) was derived from the English word “happy” (a direct translation of 开心), rather than the English word “high.” (Who knows!)
Being a little quieter,
you can still have
just as much fun.
Not as much fun, though, right? (XU!)
Nov. 13, 2017 Update: a friend wanted more explanation of the complement thing, so here it is, copied over from Facebook comments:
Question: The example in the Chinese Grammar Wiki makes sense: 早上 五点 出发 ， 孩子们 起 得 来 吗 ？… but that is 起得来 not 起起来！
Answer: In that example, 起 is a verb, and 来 is the direction complement. You insert 得 between the two to make it into a potential complement, adding the meaning of “can.” 起得来 = can get up.
The same is true for HIGH, only the complement is 起来 (in this case, 起 is not the verb). So that’s how you get HIGH得起来. (This one is harder to translate literally, though… “can get high” would be literal, but misleading (no drugs!).) “Can have a blast” is closer to the meaning, but you lose more of the V+起来 literal translation. “Can get happy” maybe, if you don’t mind a little Chinglish!)
In the blog entry, I linked to one grammar point on uses of 起来, and another on potential complements. It’s the combination of the two that you need to understand to fully get this. It’s a little tricky!
I get a lot of questions from absolute beginners about Chinese word order. “I heard it’s almost the same as English. Is it??”
It’s not an easy question to answer, but the short answer is: “fairly similar for simple sentences.” And what does “fairly similar” mean exactly? Well, I recently made this video to answer that question!
You could almost make a list of sentence patterns, starting with the simple three-word “SVO” sentences (e.g. “I love you”), and see the Chinese and English word order slowly diverge as you add in more and more complexity. That goes a bit beyond the scope of that simple video, though.
TL;DR: similar, but you still need to study it a little!
P.S. IF you’re wondering where I got that awesome t-shirt, it’s from here.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been working on converting the Chinese Grammar Wiki ebook into a print book for almost a year, but the work is finally done! You can buy the new print version on Amazon. It’s a hefty 2.2 pounds, and has 400 pages. And that’s just beginner and elementary (A1-A2)!
My staff and I were so happy to finally launch the print book that we promptly threw a party over it.
It was going to be a thick book no matter what, so I made sure we didn’t skimp on font size (the Chinese and pinyin fonts are a decent size), line height, or margins. The margins are quite generous. This is a book that you can take some serious notes in, if you are that type of learner.
One of the greatest things about this book, for me, is that the Chinese Grammar Wiki is still there, online and free, continuously updated. Students love it. But for anyone who can afford to support this ongoing project of ours, having an offline version (ebook or print) can be seriously useful.
Special thanks to the always inspiring Dr. David Moser for writing the Foreword, and my tireless content editor Chen Shishuang.
All friends of the Chinese Grammar Wiki: please help spread the word! We’re already working hard on the next book (I’d say it’s 75% done), and we need the support.
I never imagined that collaborating with a musician to create a fun song for learning Chinese grammar would result in a love song to stinky tofu (臭豆腐), of all foods! But that is indeed what happened last week. Check out the result, from Chinese Buddy:
It’s a fun song, and there are two kids in my house (and even an adult or two) that can’t stop humming it. From a grammatical perspective, the use of the verb 要 with various objects is highlighted.
My input into the Chinese learning part of the song was:
Include 要, 不要, and 要不要 as well as a variety of objects
Try not to let the melody of the song “warp” the tones of the important words too much (especially “yào”)
Keep the tones as clear as possible, including the tone change for 不要 (bù yào → bú yào)
Include some “spoken” audio in the song
Yep, four checks! If you’re a beginner working on basic sentence patterns, I hope you find this song helpful. As for the stinky tofu… well, I’ll leave that up to your own judgment.
Do also check out Chinese Buddy on YouTube. There are a bunch of songs (mostly oriented at children), and the styles of the songs range quite a bit, so don’t judge the music on just one or two songs. Probably my second favorite song would the the Tones Song. (Yeah, I have a thing for tones, and also ukulele music, maybe?)
I remember struggling with the unspoken “ifs” of the Chinese language. Sometimes what’s said is meant to be understood as a hypothetical, but there’s no “if” word to be found. You just have to get used to it, and it can be quite bewildering at first.
It was somewhat gratifying, then, to see my daughter struggling just a little bit with this same issue. She’s five and a half now, and fully fluent in Chinese for her age, but she’s still in the process of acquiring Chinese grammar. (See my previous post on grammar points learned by age 2.)
The context was that my daughter had done an especially good job of getting up early and getting ready for school quickly. The conversation with her mom went something like this:
You could translate the exchange like this:
Mom: If only you did this every day!
5yo: You’re being sarcastic!
This translation into English totally fails to reveal the source of the misunderstanding because I had to add in the unspoken “if,” absent from the Chinese original. The full sentence including the 如果 “if” would would have been:
Because my daughter didn’t understand that there was an unspoken “if” in the sentence, she assumed her mom was being sarcastic, since she was quite clear on the fact that she doesn’t always do a good job of getting ready for school quickly.
In actuality, the 就好了 part of the sentence wouldn’t really make sense without a 如果, so there’s essentially only one possible interpretation of the original sentence. It takes kids a while to figure out the intricacies of these grammar patterns, though!
> you look at me one moment
> and at clouds the next.
> I feel
> when you’re looking at me, you’re far away,
> but when you’re looking at the clouds, how could we be nearer!
> translated by Gordon T. Osing and De-An Wu Swihart.
The only potentially challenging aspects for a learner (armed with a dictionary tool) are:
1. Use of 一会 (also written as 一会儿), meaning “for a moment,” which is often pronounced “yíhuì” or “yíhuìer” (make sure that you know your tone change rules!)
2. Use of 时 (shí), a more formal equivalent of 的时候 (de shíhou)
I’m going to have to look into Gu Cheng more. He also has this great 2-line poem (taken from the Wikipedia article just linked to), which is basically at the intermediate level:
> Hēiyè gěi le wǒ hēisè de yǎnjing
> Wǒ què yòng tā xúnzhǎo guāngmíng
> The dark night gave me black eyes,
> I use them nonetheless seeking for the light.
There are a few words in there that would definitely need to be looked up by an intermediate learner, but the only challenging grammatical point is the use of 却 (què).
It’s so great to have material like this accessible to learners.
When I first started learning Chinese in 1998, I learned the word 和 (hé) as a way to express “and.” However, it was an “and” with limitations; it was not to be used to connect sentences or clauses. For example, none of these sentences could be expressed with 和:
– Today we’re going to learn how to hold the pen and learn the stroke order for one character.
– You get a new job, and and I’ll stop living in the treehouse.
– He ran into the street and got hit by a garbage truck.
So the way I learned 和 was as a way of connecting nouns and noun phrases. Not verbs. Different from English, but not too tough, right?
The only problem was that after moving to China in 2000, from time to time I would encounter examples of what were clearly verbs being linked by 和. It didn’t happen often, but often enough to bug me. Worst yet, although some Chinese teachers had told me to only use 和 to connect nouns, others told me 和could be used to connect verbs too. This conflicting advice was frustrating, and in the end I decided to ignore the non-noun uses of 和 because you don’t need to use 和 for verbs; there are other ways to link verbs.
Fast forward to this year.
The Chinese Grammar Wiki has a beginner-level article on 和 that until very recently stated that 和 is used to connect nouns and noun phrases but not verbs. Then someone on Reddit politely called us out on it with a very good counter-example.
Now that I have a team of Chinese teachers at AllSet Learning, I can have one of my lead teachers properly research the issue. She didn’t find much, and did extensive examination of 和 in use in various corpora. Then we also discussed the issue with a group at a recent teacher training session.
The result is that we now have a new page on advanced uses of 和. It’s still good to start with the basic uses, but more advanced learners can jump into the other messy details.
The bad news is that the issue of when you can and can’t use 和 with verbs is still quite murky. The wiki page needs more examples and more references. (If anyone knows of any research papers or books that touch on this issue, please share! See the Chinese Grammar Wiki page for more details.)
But the good news is that it’s really great to see the Chinese Grammar Wiki expanding in this way, through feedback and the dedication of AllSet Learning’s academic team. It’s not every day you get to see a free resource like this blossom, and it’s even more gratifying to be part of it.
I’ve been recommending the Zhongwen extension for Chrome for years already, and it’s also the one we recommend to users of the Chinese Grammar Wiki. Well, with the most recent update to the extension, that recommendation has gotten a lot stronger! The Zhongwen extension now makes it easy to look up words on the Chinese Grammar Wiki by keyword. For example, if you’re using the Zhongwen extension and mouse over “都,” you’ll notice that it has a grammar keyword entry. Press “G” to open that in a new tab, and you’ve got a list of all the grammar points on the wiki that use 都. Pretty useful!
While working with the extension developer, Christian Schiller, to add this new feature to Zhongwen, I also took the opportunity to do a short interview with him:
The Chinese Grammar Wiki has been steadily growing over the years. In its early days, when tons of articles were “stubs,” and lots of grammar points still needed appropriate example sentences, we decided not to include pinyin for those sentences, and instead outsource that work to browser plugins. We recognized that once the page contents stabilized eventually, it would definitely be better to add both English translations and pinyin for all sentences, or at least the sentences at the lower levels.
Well, that time has come! AllA1 (Beginner) and A2 (Elementary) grammar points on the Chinese Grammar Wiki now have both English translations and pinyin. Thanks to our tech team and volunteers for slowly but surely making this happen. The Chinese Grammar Wiki is now way more accessible to beginners as a result.
Oh, it also has lots more colorful images now! Not exactly vital to the learning experience, but not bad either.
If you’re learning Chinese and haven’t checked out the Chinese Grammar Wiki recently, please pay it another visit. If you like it, please help spread the word!
From the original “cannot use” list, the only other one she’s picked up has been personal pronouns (which she’s still getting used to). I really thought it would be a while before I heard 把 come out of her mouth. She’s definitely not using 把 often, but it’s already in that little brain…
1. 的: He used this one as an attributive, which is a kind of structural particle. This one is one of the “three de‘s”!
2. 地: As a particle, this word is pronounced “de,” and frequently comes after after adjectives-cum-adverbs, before verbs. However, here it’s pronounced “dì,” and means “ground” or “floor.” Not one of the “three de‘s.”
3. 得: As a particle, this word is pronounced “de,” and frequently comes after verbs. However, here’s it’s pronounced “děi” and means “must,” and comes before the verb 扫 (to sweep). Not one of the “three de‘s.”
So he used all three “de” characters (in a row!), but they weren’t the structural particles the first guy was talking about.
The real answer
In reality, the question which set up the joke is a good one: nowadays, do native speakers of Chinese distinguish between the “three de‘s” when writing?
The answer is yes and no. Professional writers certainly do. Teenagers texting their friends are typically pretty lazy and won’t pay much attention to the distinction (frequently over-using 的). Because so many people are typing these days, and predictive text isn’t so good at differentiating the three de‘s, lots of errors creep into common usage (in texts, on WeChat, on blogs, etc.), and everyone is used to seeing them. Some native speakers will even tell you that the distinction is unimportant.
So if you’re trying to write proper Chinese, then yes, you should pay attention to the distinction. If it’s just casual texting, no one is going to be horrified when you use the wrong de.
I recently wrote a guest post on Olle Linge’s excellent blog, Hacking Chinese: How to Approach Chinese Grammar. At a later date I’ll probably adapt it to more specifically relate to AllSet Learning’s work on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, but in the meantime, I made this little visual metaphor to add to what I said in that article:
I was actually originally thinking the metaphor would be like the difference between a video game that you have to read the manual or you basically can’t even play it, and the kind of game where you can easily just “jump in” and learn as you play. (Although there used to be a lot of games of the first type, nowadays most console games are actually of the second type, with built-in tutorials.) But the above visual was a lot simpler and to-the-point, and makes sense to gamers and non-gamers alike.
My daughter is now two years old, and she’s well on her way to simultaneously acquiring both English and Mandarin Chinese (with a little Shanghainese thrown in for good measure). We’re using the “One Parent One Language” approach, and it’s working pretty well.
I’ve taken a keen interest in my daughter’s vocabulary acquisition, but recently I’ve also been paying close attention to her grammar in both English and Chinese. Those that follow the debate regarding order of acquisition and whether or not a child’s natural acquisition should be closely mirrored by language learning materials should not be surprised to learn that her grammar pattern acquisition is all over the place. What I mean is that the grammar patterns she can or cannot use do not match well to what a beginner learner of Chinese should or shouldn’t be able to use after a year of study.
So what I’m going to do in this post is briefly comment on her mastery of some well-known grammar points, and also highlight some of the more surprising ones. I’ll be using the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s breakdown by level for reference (the order, low to high, is: A1, A2, B1, B2).
Grammar Points My Daughter Can Use
Measure word “ge“ (A1)
So she’s counting things the Chinese way, with 个. Picked this one up pretty quick, it seems.
“Er” and “liang” (A1)
I was wondering how quickly she’d master the use of 二 and 两, but she had it down easily, before she was two. (Obviously, she has no need for most of the fringe cases; she just needs to count stuff.) I know her waipo (maternal grandmother) practiced this one with her a lot.
Expressing possession (A1)
It took her a while to get the hang of 的 for possession, just as it took her a while to get the hand of “‘s” for possession in English. Neither is totally consistent (she sometimes forgets to use them), but she’s basically got them down.
Questions with “ne“ (A1)
When an adult learns Chinese, you learn the pattern “____ 在哪儿？” to ask where something is. My daughter totally skipped that, and uses 呢 exclusively to ask where things are. This is a use of 呢 you don’t normally learn as an adult student of Mandarin until a bit later, but there’s no arguing that it’s simpler! Kids like linguistic shortcuts.
“meiyou” as a Verb (A1)
She doesn’t know that 没 is a special adverb of negation used with 有. She just knows what 没有 means as a whole. And it works!
Negative commands with “bu yao“ (A1)
Yeah, two year olds can be a bit demanding and uncooperative. 不要 is a key tool in her arsenal of terribleness, and it’s one of the few Chinese words that she likes to use when she’s otherwise speaking English, as well.
Standard negation with “bu“ (A1)
Again, very useful when she wants to be contrary. She uses 不 pretty indiscriminately, putting it in front of verbs, verb phrases, and adjectives, but sometimes also nouns.
Expressing “with” with “gen” (A2)
I say she “knows” this, but she uses it exclusively with the verb 去, for talking about “going with (someone).” Again, it gets the job done!
Change of state with “le” (A2)
This is another one of those grammar points that she has a very limited mastery of, but makes good use of. She knows and uses the phrases “来了,” “走了,” and a few others. (Interestingly, she often uses “来了” as a substitute for the existential 有, meaning “there is.”)
“-wan” result complement (B1)
Obviously, she has no clue how to use complements. She learns phrases, and the phrase “吃完了” gets used a lot. (Her English equivalent for this is “finished” or “done,” not “finished eating” or “done eating.”)
Expressing the self-evident with “ma“ (B1) 嘛 (not 吗) is notoriously tricky for adults to get the hang of, but my daughter jumped right in and started using it early. Sometimes it feels like she’s not using it quite right, but clearly that doesn’t faze her. You’ll notice that any Chinese 3-year-old uses 嘛 pretty liberally, so it’s clearly something that kids pick up really quickly, and adult learners over-analyze.
Grammar Points My Daughter Cannot Use
Personal pronouns (A1)
This might seem surprising, but these ubiquitous, abstract words for expressing “I” (我), “you” (你), and “he/she/it” (他/她/它) are totally unnecessary in the beginning and ignored by kids for quite a while. My daughter is just know starting to use “I” and “我,” but she’s still just experimenting. (Previously, she used “baby” and her own name instead of “I.”)
“Can” with “hui” “neng” and “keyi” (A2)
Here’s something elementary learners spend quite a bit of time mastering, but my daughter has decided to shelve the use of modal verbs 会, 能, and 可以 altogether, for the time being. (She seems to be making some progress on English “can,” however.)
“Shi… de” construction (B1)
Yeah… doesn’t need 是……的, doesn’t use it. She hears this pattern in questions all the time, however. She’s slowly soaking up the input.
“Ba” Sentence (B1)
This one is notoriously difficult for adult learners, and kids avoid it for a while, too, as it turns out. My daughter definitely understands the structure, though, whether or not she even notices the presence of 把 in the sentences she understands. She never uses it.
“Bei” sentence (B1)
She definitely doesn’t use 被. No need for passive at all, and she doesn’t hear it much either, at this point. I’m sure linguists have studied at what point kids acquire passive constructions and why, but it’s clearly a lower linguistic priority for kids.
None of this is scientific; these are just casual observations. Watching my daughter simultaneously acquire two languages, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the differences between the way children and adults acquire languages. Whether or not there are neurological limits is still being debated, but it’s clear to me that there are differences, in practice.
What I’m seeing:
Kids can get by without pronouns. Without pronouns! How many adults could do that, even after being told they’re not high priority? I’ve personally observed quite a few people that try to start learning a language by translating the English of what they want to say, and their first question is frequently, “how do I say ‘I’?” You don’t need to start this way, but adults feel they need to.
My daughter was not at all tripped up by measure words, but after mastering numbers 1-10 in both languages she zoomed ahead with her Chinese numbers, while the irregular teens in English (“eleven,” “twelve,” “thirteen,” etc.) really slowed her down.
By putting utility above all else, my daughter frequently starts “using grammar patterns” before she understands how they work at all, simply by learning phrases. I don’t mean she doesn’t intellectually understand grammatical concepts (of course she doesn’t), I mean she doesn’t even know that she can put 完 on the end of other actions; she just knows how to say 吃完了 when she finished eating, because that’s all she needs from 完 at this point. The memorized phrase will be generalized into a “pattern” when it becomes necessary. This is actually a point that adults should really learn from: over-analysis frequently slows adults way down and delays meaningful communication. This is also the logic behind the approach to learning 了 on the Chinese Grammar Wiki; learning patterns in a gradual process is actually the best way to learn how to use 了. And it’s usually best to memorize a phrase you need first, then generalize later.
There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll stop now. Comments are welcome! I’m especially interested in hearing about relative order of grammar acquisition of my readers’ children.
In case you’re wondering how one should understand the phrase “爱 ♥ 回家” grammatically, 爱 is a noun here, so it means “love returns home” rather than “[someone] loves to return home.” Ah, Chinese grammar and its flexible parts of speech…