How to Approach Chinese Grammar

Earlier this spring, I asked an expert panel a difficult question: How should we learn Chinese grammar? As I hoped, the answers were as insightful as they were diverse. There are many ways of learning grammar and all have different strengths we can add to our own study method. One of the experts I asked is John Pasden, well-known for his blog Sinosplice, which was one of my main inspirations when I started Hacking Chinese. As someone who has spent a lot of time and energy creating the Chinese Grammar Wiki, it’s only natural that John thought that the few hundred words available for the expert panel article weren’t enough. Therefore, he decided to write a standalone article about how to approach Chinese grammar. And here it is!

What to Expect When Learning Chinese Grammar

allset-deIt’s best to approach a new, unfamiliar topic without too many preconceptions, but there are two that I hear a lot in regards to Chinese grammar, so I think it’s better to briefly address them both:

  1. “Chinese doesn’t have grammar.” OK, this is just silly. If there are no rules for how to string Chinese words together, then you could never be wrong, right? Although that sounds nice, it’s just not possible.
  2. “Chinese word order is just like English word order.” While it’s true that there are some basic similarities, and you can easily find examples like “I love you” that match word for word, it’s not hard to disprove this. Even basic words like 也 (yě) will constantly trip you up if you don’t use them the Chinese way.

You’ve also probably heard that Chinese grammar doesn’t have verb conjugation, or plurals, or cases, and a bunch of other stuff that we language learners generally associate with “not fun.” What does all this add up to? It means that for someone who speaks English, Chinese grammar is not going to stress you out too much. But still keep your eyes out for interesting features and patterns different from English. You will find them.

The Learning Curve

I once compared learning Chinese grammar to learning Japanese grammar. My conclusion is that Chinese grammar starts out pretty easily and ramps up gradually. (Don’t get too smug, though; while you’re not getting flummoxed by Chinese grammar, Chinese tones and characters are ravaging your poor little brain.)

The great thing about this is that it means “get out there and talk” is a great strategy. If you’ve got the vocabulary and a few basic patterns down, grammar is not going to be your biggest obstacle. If you can’t find someone to talk to, then get reading as soon as possible.

I recommend the following learning strategy:

  1. Learn basic grammar patterns
  2. Extend your knowledge with experimentation and input
  3. Go back to grammar resources when you get confused or some grammatical issues just really starts bugging you

Let’s look at each in detail.

Learn Basic Grammar Patterns

You can find these in any grammar book. It’s stuff like:

要 + Verb = “Want to [Verb]”

or

Noun1 + 比 + Noun2 + Adj = “Noun1 is more [Adj] than Noun2”

Sure, if you dig, you can find all kinds of weird exceptions and advanced forms, but to delve into those right away is to waste the advantage provided by the gentle learning curve. Put another way, it’s kind of hard to communicate in a language that requires verbs to be conjugated if you haven’t learned to conjugate verbs at all. But here’s this language that doesn’t require conjugations and has all kinds of simple patterns. Why would you not want to just jump right in? Don’t make it more complicated than it is!

If you’re learning from textbooks or podcasts, they may or may not dwell on the finer points of grammar. As a learner, though, you can choose to take just what you need and get out there and start talking. “Pack light.” You don’t need to finish reading up on all the exceptions of each grammar point in order to have a conversation.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki was designed with this principle in mind. Rather than a “grammar course,” it’s a “resource.” In other words, reference it when you need it. If you don’t need it, great! One of the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s key design elements is to break grammar points down by levels. This can be tricky, because often there are finer points of a particular word’s usage which actually go beyond the basic usage of the word. Often, books will group these all together, a practice which confuses and discourages learners.

allset-activeThe solution we generally favor on the Chinese Grammar Wiki for cases like this is to keep the basic grammar point at the lower level, then create a “sequel” grammar point at a higher level. Obviously, the two will be linked, but the point is to provide a level-appropriate explanation for the lower-level learner so that he can “get in and get out” quickly. (Of course, if that learner wants to go clicking down the grammatical rabbit hole, Wikipedia-style, we won’t stop him.)

One example of this is Wanting to do something with “yao”, which is at the A1 (Beginner) level. Higher-level learners that take a look at this grammar point will be thinking, “hey, wait a minute, there’s a lot more that 要 can mean in Chinese!” Very true. We hold off until level A2 (Elementary) to introduce Auxiliary verb “yao” and its multiple meanings.

The point is to just take what you need and go use it.

Extend Your Knowledge with Experimentation and Input

Once you have your basic grammar patterns and vocabulary down, and you’re out there practicing your Chinese, there are a few other things you can do to get the most out of the experience.

  1. Focus on meaning when you speak. Use the grammar points that you think will get your point across. If they do, then great. That’s a good sign. If, however, you’re repeatedly using the same grammar point to express a certain idea, and no one seems to understand what the heck you’re talking about, you might want to try another approach, and eventually revisit that stupid grammar point that didn’t work for you.
  2. Listen for recasting. Very often, native speakers will give you subtle corrections while conversing with you. Many learners are blissfully unaware of these, but if you tune into them, they can be an excellent way to improve your speaking (and it’s a way more enjoyable way of getting corrective feedback than a pile of homework covered in red ink!).
  3. Go out there and try new patterns. Start conversations specifically to use a new grammar pattern. This kind of experimentation might sound silly and not terribly conducive to real conversation, but the results can be surprising. The way native speakers respond to your shaky, early uses of new grammar patterns will reinforce the meaning and usage of those patterns like nothing else. And you will have awesome conversations.
  4. When you don’t understand, don’t get hung up on it. A lot of times the grammar, though complex, isn’t actually important to the topic at hand. The 把 (bǎ) construction is a perfect example of this. If you really want to learn it properly, there’s a lot to take in. But you can also completely ignore it for quite a while and do just fine. If you’re having real conversations, ignore the pesky grammar patterns until you can’t!

Following these four pieces of advice will allow you to get more input sooner. This will help accelerate not only your acquisition of grammar, but also vocabulary, listening comprehension, and speaking proficiency. The thing about language acquisition, though, is that it is a largely unconscious process. So you won’t necessarily FEEL the effects of the input, but they will be at work in your brain.

As for the conscious part of the learning process, it’s crucial that you get out there and make contact with the real language. It will breathe life into the grammar explanations that you have already studied if you revisit them later. Furthermore, real communication will fuel your motivation to better express yourself and understand the precise meaning of what other people are saying to you. And let’s face it… that’s what grammar is for.

Go Back to Grammar Resources Later

ba-wikiOne of my favorite stories I like to tell is about a client of mine just starting on “Intermediate” material. She was studying ChinesePod lessons, and like many of us, she struggled a bit when she first encountered the 把 (bǎ) construction. The interesting thing, though, was her claim that, “none of the Chinese people I know use this.”

I knew, of course, that her claim couldn’t be true. The 把 construction is a super-common feature of spoken Mandarin, and there’s no way that native speakers aren’t using it on a regular basis. Sure, it’s possible to eliminate it in order to simplify one’s speech, but this client was claiming that the people around her weren’t using it at all. But her feedback actually highlighted an important truth: she wasn’t hearing the 把 construction at all.

And this is one of the things that most fascinates me about grammar: when you’re ready to learn a new grammar point, it will naturally come into focus. Little connector words that you didn’t even hear before will suddenly start to stand out. Although you were once happy to just get the basic gist, your brain will start to hunger for a more precise understanding of the grammar point in question.

When you start to get those “grammar pangs,” that’s when you need to go to your grammar resource, whether it’s Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar printed on a dead tree or the Chinese Grammar Wiki. They say of food that “hunger is the best sauce.” The same is true for grammar. To do otherwise is to invite indigestion.

Thanks, John! I’m sure my readers found this article as interesting as I did. Personally, I think the most important part of your article is the last two paragraphs. Learning grammar based on what you intuitively feel that you need to know has been a guiding principle for me as well. Naturally, this goes both for understanding grammar and for using it yourself. The most powerful way of learning anything is to have an actual need for it before you learn it! If you want to know more about John, head over to Sinosplice and bookmark/subscribe; if you want to learn more about grammar, head over to the Chinese Grammar Wiki!

Image credit: All images used in this article are from the Chinese Grammar Wiki and are reproduced with explicit permission.

Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar

Grammar is something central to learning any language, including Chinese. If someone says otherwise, it’s probably because they don’t know what grammar means, so let’s start with a basic definition (from Wikipedia):

grammar is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language

Thus, while it’s true that Chinese grammar is different from English grammar or the grammar of other European languages you might have encountered, Chinese certainly has a complex grammar itself and mastering how make words, construct phrases and string together sentences is an essential part of learning Chinese. There’s little do disagree about here, so the big question is as usual not what, but how:

grammar-smallHow should we learn Chinese grammar?

There are many, many different ways of approaching grammar, both from a theoretical point of view and from a practical, student perspective.

Even though the question above is very short, it covers a number of topics. For instance:

  • Is there any difference between learning grammar when learning Chinese compared with other languages?
  • What should students who are studying on their own focus on?
  • What resources are available for learning grammar?
  • Is it important to focus on grammar when learning Chinese or should it be done implicitly?
  • Is theoretical knowledge useful, and if so, how should we acquire it?

There are of course many more things to talk about than these, but this serves as an introduction to the complexity of the question of how to learn grammar. Because this is such an interesting topic and there are so many different approaches, I decided to ask the expert panel and see what other language learners and teachers out there had to say about learning Chinese grammar. They have all answered the question in their own way, so rather than viewing this as a competition between different views on how to learn grammar, regard it as a tour through different available options.

Expert panel articles on Hacking Chinese

As you can see, this is the second expert panel article here and these articles are still very much an experiment. If you have suggestions or thoughts about the format or how to improve it, let me know! If you know someone who you think should participate next time or if you have ideas for different topics to ask, leave a comment!

Here are the participant in this expert panel on grammar. In order to scramble the order a bit compared with last time, I have sorted the answers based on the authors’ surnames (or family names) rather than their first/personal names:



Imron Alston has been learning Chinese since 2001, and in that time has spent a total of six years living, working and studying in China, mostly in Hebei and Beijing. He is an admin on the Chinese learning site Chinese-Forums.com, and is also the developer of a number of tools designed for Chinese learners, including Hanzi Grids – a tool for generating custom Chinese character worksheets, and Pinyinput – an IME for typing pinyin with tone marks.

For me, most of my learning was done through exposure to native speakers and native content, and while this also included following different parts of different text books at different times, I never really had a methodical approach to learning grammar. At times I also read various grammar books, and while it was nice reading them and having various structures explained, it’s never been something that has captured my interest.

Unfortunately what this meant is that as I got better at Chinese, I found myself at a stage I think of as ‘advanced with gaps’. The gaps continue to reduce the more advanced I get, but even now there are times when I find myself having a degree of uncertainty with whether what I’m saying is correct or not. It also means that except for basic things, I’m pretty useless at explaining grammar beyond ‘just because’. It’s quite possible that I would still be in this position if I had paid more attention to things like grammar, but in general I attribute these shortcoming to my lackadaisical study approach early on. For me, I was always more interested in being able to use the language, rather than in the study of the language itself, and looking back I think this hampered my learning to some degree.

If I were going about things again I’d certainly try to be more rigorous in this regard. I probably still wouldn’t dive deep in to grammar in the beginning, but I’d make sure to choose a good text-book series and make sure to work my way through it from start to finish. As a self-learner, the younger me was too concerned about becoming ‘advanced’ and saw using ‘advanced’ level text books and materials as evidence that I’d reached that position. What that meant was skipping past things that probably would have been quite helpful in solidifying my language skills.

I like to think my Chinese has turned out all right despite all of that, but it’s meant the journey has likely been longer than it otherwise might have been. My advice to new learners would be don’t try to rush things, and don’t get so caught up in just trying to use the language that you neglect skills that will help you improve. Keep working at things slowly and methodically, and you’ll set yourself up with a good base from which to continue your learning.



Greg Bell – I’ve currently got two blogs going on the matter, my language learning journey one at zhongruige.wordpress.com and the other detailing my time and work during graduate school here over at brushtalking.wordpress.com (too many blogs, I know!).

To me, the best way to learn Chinese grammar starts in the classroom or with a decent textbook that establishes a firm foundation in grammar. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, but should at least set you right on the basics. Later on, though, I feel it’s best to switch over to material for native readers and just start reading. In my own experience, I’ve found the best way to learn grammar was not through complicated grammar guides, but instead just by reading as much as possible and across a variety of sources (novels, comics, nonfiction, etc.). After a while, I began to internalize the grammar, and started to gain a feeling for the language.

I don’t believe there is any real difference between learning Chinese grammar versus learning grammar for other languages. Although the lack of verb conjugation does make things easier, each language has its own nuances. Through either careful study or full immersion, I believe it’s possible to learn the grammar of any language.

If you’re studying on your own, I believe in the beginning something like AllSet’s Grammar Wiki is a fantastic place to start. When you’re comfortable with that grammar, you can move on to news articles, short stories, or even graded readers if they’re available. In the end, grammar doesn’t have to be too theoretical (sorry linguists!) and can naturally be picked up. As you advance though, it may be good to flip through some grammar books, ideally written for native speakers, and refine your understanding of the grammar of the language.



Yangyang Cheng is the founder and host of YoyoChinese.com, an online Chinese language education company that uses simple and clearly-explained videos to teach Chinese to English speakers. A previous TV show host and Chinese language professor, Yangyang is also one of the most popular online Chinese teachers with tens of millions of video views.

Why is learning Chinese grammar important?

I often tell my students that learning a language is like building a house. Vocabulary words are like the bricks for your house and grammar is like the architectural blueprint that tells you how to put the bricks together and in what order. Learning grammar is important because it can give you the freedom to build correct sentences on your own. For example in Chinese, once you know the Golden Rule regarding Chinese word order, you’ll instantly know where to put time and location words and be able to speak with confidence.

goldenrule

When should I start learning Chinese grammar?

The best time to learn grammar is after you already have some basics down. For example, if you already have some decent vocabulary and some experience talking to a native speaker, your next step is going to be grammar.

Where and How should learn Chinese grammar?

We have 12 free gframmar videos on Youtube that you can watch. I also have a program on my Chinese learning site www.yoyochinese.com called “Yoyo Chinese Grammar”. Basically, you can think of this course as the video version of a comprehensive Chinese grammar book, but with lots of pictures/cartoons and clear and easy to follow explanations. The course is organized around different grammatical topics, such as “Chinese word order”, “Chinese negation words”, “how to form a Chinese question” and “how to use the notorious (ba3- 把)” etc. Each topic contains a series of mini lessons that build upon each other. You can either watch all the lessons in order to get a complete picture or skip around and only learn the things that you need.



Hi! I’m Steven Daniels, I’ve studied Chinese for years and lived in China even longer. My interests–learning Chinese, Chinese dictionaries, and programming–led me to create Lingomi and 3000 Hanzi.2 Tips for learning Chinese grammar on your own:1. Buy some material: most textbooks do a pretty good job of introducing grammar in each lesson. For-pay podcasts sites do a good job of this too. Don’t skip the grammar sections and examples, no matter how much you’d like to.

2. Add repetition: copy the grammatical patterns and examples out of your textbooks and put them onto flashcards. Review them like you’d review words or sentences.

Chinese Grammar is taught pretty well.

I’m often critical of standard practices for teaching Chinese, but grammar is one area where I’m not very critical. For those studying on their own, this is a quick rundown of how grammar is taught.

Currently, teachers provide beginners with a light introduction to basic grammar. You mostly learn simple sentence structures. At this stage, Chinese grammar feels pretty easy: in some ways it feels like Chinese barely has any grammar at all (especially compared to most other languages). At this stage, beginners, being confronted with tones and character, don’t have the time or the background to try and fully understand Chinese grammar.

Once a student gets to an intermediate level, they are introduced and re-introduced to Chinese grammar. At this point, Chinese grammar starts getting more difficult (e.g. the many ways to use 了 ). An intermediate student can learn most of the grammatical structures that Chinese uses, but these will still take a while to master.

When you look at advanced Chinese textbooks, there really isn’t a lot of grammar in the traditional sense. Advanced students spend time passively (or actively) reviewing grammar they learned at earlier stages. In addition, advanced students spend a lot of time learning collocations and trying to master when to use one of a variety of synonyms.

There are many different approaches that could be taken with teaching grammar, but they all have drawbacks. Using linguistics to introduce grammar could make learning it easier, but most Chinese learners don’t have a linguistics background. Trying to shoehorn more grammar in at earlier stages would require spending less time on pronunciation or characters — not a good tradeoff. Overall, I feel Chinese grammar is taught rather effectively. Of course, I do have a couple of issues.

  • One possible complaint is textbooks tend to teach grammar once and expect you to master it. Luckily, most teachers will make sure you review it constantly. Like learning Characters, repetition is key.
  • Finally, there aren’t any guides to reaching fluency. Going beyond advanced, students should learn how to go about writing different types of essays–how to structure their argument, how to use 连词 properly, etc. The old HSK’s writing section awarded students who knew how to structure essays in a way that native Chinese learners were accustomed to reading. If writing isn’t your thing, you can still learn these important structures and patterns by looking at Chinese debates online or joining a Chinese debate team.


Ding Yi is the Events Coordinator and full time teacher at Hutong School, the leading foreign owned Chinese language school in China founded in 2005. With an enthusiasm for teaching Chinese language and culture to students from all around the world, Ding Yi loves exchanging fresh ideas and making new friends along the way. He loves the airport, yuxiang rousi, and hiking.

Learning Chinese grammar is a step by step process. What I mean by this is that you must establish the foundations first and then build further on this. I therefore believe that absolute beginners must have a teacher.

Why? Since Chinese history and culture is immensely vast, evolution over time has meant that one character can hold a plethora of meanings – both literally and symbolically. Although Chinese sentences are more flexible in its word order compared to other languages, it is also very important, and so a difference in sentence structure or subtle addition of particles to the untrained ear is likely to cause confusion.

Another important aspect of Chinese is that it is an economical language; only a small number of words are used in order to express maximum power. An example of this is in the use of chengyu, which can be compared somewhat to idioms. Whilst they are often incomprehensible without explanation and seem to lack grammatical structure, these typically four character phrases give an insight into the complexity of the Chinese language.

To learn effectively and thus remember well, practicing speaking with a native speaker beside you is the best tool you can have, more so than learning the technicalities of the theory via a text book. A tried and tested method that I teach my students is to make long sentences when you first start learning the basic concepts of Chinese grammar. This will encourage you to keep to the correct order when attempting your own sentences in real life. All in all, in order to have a deep understanding of how grammar works, you must apply the practical usage in daily life, because actual application is the most important thing. In short, go out and practice speaking Chinese now.



Carl Gene Fordham is a NAATI-accredited Chinese-English translator with a Master’s degree in Translating and Interpreting Studies from RMIT University and a HSK 6 Certificate (the highest level Chinese proficiency certification). Carl currently runs a translating, interpreting and IELTS training school in Melbourne, Australia. He also writes a popular blog about translating and interpreting Chinese called 一步一个脚印.

In my opinion the best way to learn Chinese grammar is through a combination of reading textbooks and conversing with native speakers. Nowadays there are plenty of decent grammar textbooks on the market which can be very helpful, but the focus should always be on how to take what you learn in the book and apply it in real life. This is where the advice of a good teacher or tutor is essential, as the average native speaker friend will not be able to explain the finer points of grammar. But the learner should also take the initiative to put the grammar into practice too. As you start to do this, the grammar will become your own.

Personally I’ve found Chinese grammar to be, on the whole, a straight-forward system, much more logical than English grammar. It is, of course, also highly complex – that is, complex, but not necessarily complicated. The beginning and intermediate grammatical structures you pick up are powerful enough to be used in most situations – this is unlike other languages which require you to memorise large numbers of cases, tenses, genders, etc.



John Fotheringham is a serious “languaholic”, an adult-onset affliction for which he has yet to find a cure. John has spent most of the last decade learning and teaching foreign languages in Japan and Taiwan, and now shares what he’s learned along the way on his blog, Language Mastery | Tips, Tools & Tech to Learn Languages the Fun Way.

First of all, I would like to put to rest the ridiculous myth that “Chinese has no grammar”. Chinese may lack the verb conjugations so prevalent in Romance languages like Spanish and French, but that does not mean that the language lacks “grammar”. Like all languages, Chinese contains a finite (though gradually evolving) set of patterns, conventions, and syntactic rules that allow us to understand—and be understood by—others. Without grammar, languages would just be a chaotic slew of words and society as we know it could not exist.

However, just because grammar is essential for communication, it does not follow that one must spend heaps of time formally studying grammar rules to properly understand and form a language. As Barry Farber puts it:

“You do not have to know grammar to obey grammar.”

One’s ability to understand and form grammatical sentences is based on what’s called “procedural memory”, the brain’s way of storing and retrieving implicit knowledge. Without it, we would not be able to drive a car, throw a ball, or speak a language without consciously thinking through each and every tiny step, each and every time we do perform a complex action.

Many language learners fail to reach functional fluency in foreign languages because they approach language study as an academic subject, trying to force feed grammar rules into “declarative memory” (the kind of memory used to store explicit facts) instead of getting the input and output practice they need to truly internalize the language’s underlying structures. Procedural memories are only formed when you get tons of listening and speaking practice.

I will concede that a little bit of formal study can help prime the brain for the grammatical patterns it will encounter when listening and speaking a language, but this should augment—not replace—the active input and output activities that do most of the heavy neurological lifting. So take a peak at your textbook from time to time if you like, but make sure to spend the majority of your study time listening to Chinese podcasts, watching Chinese videos on FluentU.com, speaking with tutors on Skype, and chatting up native Chinese speakers at your favorite tea shop.



Jacob Gill is a graduate student at National Taiwan Normal University for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. Co-Founder of Chinese Guild (add link), Chinese Teacher, Translator, Academic Advisor for Skritter, Summer Coordinator at Academic Explorers and blogger at iLearnMandarin. A Global Citizen, a life-long language learner and a full-time geek.

How should we learn Chinese grammar?

Chinese isn’t English, and it isn’t like many European languages, which means that a lot of the things we usually associate with grammar — tenses, conjugation, etc. don’t apply. If the rules we usually use have changed, we have to take the time to understand how the new rules work or interact with what we know, and how to build new connections where necessary. I like taking a more top-down approach to learning Chinese grammar, meaning paying attention to different word order patterns and how/ when they’re used, for example: simple Subject, Verb, Object, sentences, or the more complicated types: ex. subject, when, where, how, action. Ask yourself, how are these patterns similar to my native language, and how are they different?

By understanding the framework of Chinese grammar, patterns will begin to emerge and fall into place leading to quicker comprehension, and also the ability to produce your own sentences fast. Add context to various grammar patters, and when reading or listening in Chinese, try and pay attention to pre-set patterns, and how they’re used in conjunction with each other. In my eyes, people often learn best by doing something, so a key part of “learning” Chinese grammar is actually using the language to be understood. So start producing as quickly as possible, regardless of error!

Focus energy on how words work within, not independent of, grammatical chunks, ex. 因 為…所以…. I don’t think it hurts to spend a good deal of time memorizing these chucks, and basic Chinese Sentence Pattern books can be a great resource. One of the most successful programs I’ve ever studied in spent two hours a day drilling Chinese sentence patterns, and the results payed off in quicker overall comprehension and production all around. But, I think it’s always important to be thinking about ways to connect these new patterns to things you already know and understand. Relate them to conversations you’ve had, certain moods, or various situations, and then go out and use them. Grammar patterns will emerge naturally in conversation, and you’ll pick it up just as naturally if you force yourself to communicate and attempt to be understood. Challenge yourself to use new patterns, and to make mistakes. Ask for feedback, and if you don’t understand something, be sure to ask for help. Be creative, be fearless, and above all, use the language.



Hugh Grigg studied East Asian Studies at university, and is trying to keep up the learning habit long term. He writes about what he learns at eastasiastudent.net , to keep track of his progress and to try and help out other people where he can.

Despite running a website entirely devoted to Chinese grammar, I’m actually in the camp that says you shouldn’t spend too much time explicitly studying grammar. I think it’s important to have a reference available, to be able to ask questions, and most of all to be able to preview grammar points with explanation before you encounter them in the wild. Just as immunisation lets your body prepare to fight off an infection before it does the actual fighting, studying some grammar lets makes you more effective at doing the actual work of getting input and practicing (please forgive my love of terrible analogies). That’s the real work you need to do to learn a language: getting as much input as possible (reading and listening), and getting as much practice as possible (actually trying to speak and write as much as you can). Olle does a fine job of both writing about this and putting it into practice himself.

Our goal with our Chinese grammar site is to help out as much as we can with the process I describe here. We work as a pair (a native English speaker studying Chinese and a native Chinese speaker studying English) and try to explain grammar points as intuitively and simply as possible, but really focusing on giving plenty of natural example sentences. I use these sentences (and others) in the Anki SRS software and rehearse them that way, until the words, patterns and syntactic glue all become very familiar to me and are at my disposal in future. That’s how I study Chinese grammar and it’s the way I’d recommend (although I’m very much looking forward to reading the other responses here!).

I’ll also direct everyone who hasn’t seen it to the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which I worked on in its early stages. It’s an amazing project, and is a little different to our site. Rather than being half-blog, half-FAQ like ours, it’s a full and comprehensive encyclopaedia of Chinese grammar with a super-clear structure and design – take a look!



Ash Henson – Avid language learner, after working as an engineer for 8+ years, left to pursue a language-related career. Currently working on a PhD in Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. Research interests include Old Chinese phonology, Chinese paleography, the Chinese Classics and excavated texts.

In modern language learning, far too much time is spent on learning to read and write, while speaking and listening are often given the back seat. Reading and writing are important (very important, actually), but should come only after the sound system of the target language has been acquired.

So what does this have to do with grammar? We all learn the grammar of our native language by listening to our parents and those around us talk. Everyone generally agrees that native speakers of a language outperform non-native speakers. Part of this may be due to biological factors (though this may not be as important as you might think, people can and do learn other languages to native or native-like levels all the time), but part of it has to do with the way languages are learned. Sound plays a huge role in properly acquiring a language. Because they can put a barrier between the learner and the actual sounds of the target language, reading and writing too early in the learning process can actually hinder proper acquisition. For example, thinking of tones as numbers if you haven’t yet mastered the actual tone contours puts an unneeded level of abstraction between you and the actual sounds of the tones. Always try to understand the actual sounds rather than the symbols used to represent them (which are useful only AFTER the actual sounds have been acquired).

When we hear non-native speakers make grammar mistakes in our native language, we know a mistake has been made because it “sounds wrong.” What that really means is, faulty sentences (i.e., a pattern or collection of sounds) go against the vast internal database we have of what our language sounds like. How we should learn grammar, then, is the answer to the question, “How do we develop the ability to know that something “sounds wrong” in the target language?”

Obviously, building up an internal database that could match a native speaker would take quite some time, but I think the old 80-20 rule can be applied here. For each grammar structure that you want to master, memorize five sentences that incorporate that structure by listening, repeating and mimicking a native speaker saying those sentences. For tonal languages such as Chinese, you might want to spend some time (perhaps a significant amount) practicing tones and tone combinations before you do entire sentences. When doing these things, you want to be thinking ONLY about the sounds and how to mimic them. You should avoid thinking about things like spelling, meaning, and grammar. Once you have the sentences memorized, go back and look at the grammar rule that they incorporate and you should be able to understand it on a more intuitive level.

We are most vulnerable to influence from our native language when we don’t know how to phrase something in the target language. Spending a lot of time mimicking native speakers in their pronunciation, rhythm, phrasing, word usage, etc. will minimize the influence our native language has the new language and help us to speak the target language in a much more natural way



David Moser holds a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan, with a major in Chinese Linguistics and Philosophy. David is currently Academic Director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, an overseas study program for U.S. college students, where he teaches courses in Chinese history and politics.

Grammar is first learned intuitively, absorbing rules subconsciously, by example. Therefore, the absolute best way – really the only way – to learn Chinese grammar is to speak Chinese with Chinese people. Only when you’ve reached a certain level of mastery will grammar rules even make sense to you. So by all means read the grammar books; they are useful stepping stones. But the most reliable Chinese grammar is not in books, it’s in the heads of Chinese speakers. Seek out or create, by hook or crook, an environment where you are constantly interacting with Chinese speakers. If you’re not in China, don’t worry, there are Chinese people everywhere in the world. Find them, befriend them, and talk with them. You can also find them online, on Weibo, or Facebook, or on WeChat, it doesn’t matter. Set up a situation, no matter how artificial, in which you are communicating constantly in Chinese.

Here are some hints on how to make the best use of your Chinese friends to improve your grammar:

(1) Enlist your Chinese friends to actively correct your mistakes. This is not as easy as you might think. Most people are reluctant to correct your grammatical errors, thinking it to be impolite or distracting. In addition, it’s natural for people to care more about content than form — grammar won’t even be on their radar. You may have to keep reminding them – or even beg them – to point out your mistakes.

(2) Work on very specific linguistic goals. “Chinese grammar” is an impossibly broad domain; narrow your goals down to specific tasks. The grammar will come naturally, as different discourse types demand different structures; for example, teaching a Chinese friend how to play guitar (the ba把construction); recounting the plot of “Game of Thrones” (time and aspect); or simply explaining why in the world you’ve decided to learn Chinese (resultative suffixes, the grammar of hopefulness). Whatever it is, begin by collecting crucial patterns and sentences, and worry about the grammar later.

(3) Be attentive to “unconscious corrections” from your friends. When you make a grammatical error, you will often find that the person you are speaking with will, in their reply, take your imperfect utterance and automatically revise it to be in accord with their internal grammar. These “unconscious corrections” are linguistic gold – hoard them!

(4) “Cheat” by Googling. If you’re wondering if a certain grammatical structure you’re using is idiomatic, you can always Google it. If a native speaker produced a similar utterance in writing somewhere on the Internet, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s at least grammatically legal. For example, if you’re wondering how to say “Allow me to introduce myself” in Chinese, you can simply take a few guesses (“让我介绍我自己”, “请让我自我介绍一下”, “我把自己介绍给你”, etc.), and then search to see the range of grammatical possibilities.



Alan Park has been studying Chinese for 13 years and previously worked in China with Chinese clients as a management consultant. Currently, he is the founder of FluentU, a site that brings language learning to life with real-world video content.”

The conventional wisdom on Chinese grammar is that it’s easy. That the hard parts are tones, pinyin, characters – basically anything except grammar. But I think it’s totally wrong. Chinese is more different from English than romance languages, and that’s what makes it hard.

Some of the tricky issues are: unusual word order, new concepts that have no real counterpart in English (eg. 了), and grammar patterns which seem to be deceivingly similar (eg. the de particles 的, 得, and 地, which all sound the same). I would not recommend that Chinese learners gloss over these tricky grammar, and assume that they will figure it out through osmosis.

What learners really need is a targeted approach. First, they should try to understand the underlying concepts with a quality grammar book or Chinese learning website like Hacking Chinese. Then, they should try to collect examples of those grammar points. Then they should be as aggressive as possible in actually practicing them and getting feedback from a teacher. Learning grammar, like learning Chinese, isn’t something that can be done by just passively reading a book. It has to be done through the creation of muscle memory, which comes from falling on your face over and over again.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t supplement it with quality examples and explanations of the concepts. Beginners or intermediate learners might find this blog post helpful: 13 Mandarin Chinese Grammar Patterns and Structures We Love to Hate. We identified some of the most challenging grammar points (eg. the de particles, 会 vs 能, 想 vs. 觉得), and tried to provide concise explanations that would really make the light bulb go off in learners’ heads.



Roddy, who runs Chinese-forums.com, which celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year. The site covers discussions on many topics related to China and Chinese – textbook choices, recommended authentic materials, studying at Chinese universities, and plenty more.

I think if at any point you’re sitting down to “study grammar” then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re following some kind of progressive course (which I’d recommend, even if you’re also getting tonnes of real exposure) that should introduce, explain and apply new structures at a reasonable pace. If you hit something that seems problematic, or you happen to hear something three times in a day and can’t resist looking it up, fair enough, open the grammar book. But otherwise make it a part of all your other learning, not something you do separately.

But each to their own. I’ve probably told this story before, but when I went back to the UK after my first year in China I signed up for an evening course in Chinese at the local university. One of the other students was an elderly professor of history who was, to be fair, awful at Chinese.

Chatting with him during the break one day I asked if he had any plans to go to China. No, he said, can’t imagine ever doing that. Chinese family or friends? Oh no, not that I can think of. Research interest in China? No, no. So why Chinese, in that case? Oh, he said, leaning in to divulge the big secret… I just love the grammar.



Albert Wolfe started learning Chinese on his own when he came to China in 2005. He is the author of Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin and a novel faceless and the blog LaowaiChinese.net.

How to learn grammar is both scary and controversial. It’s scary because many adult learners have grammar phobia. (I think it’s one of the top three scholastic fears along with math and tests.) If you don’t feel that way, that’s a huge advantage. If you do, just relax: you’ve already learned at least some grammar!

One of the most important controversies is inductive vs. deductive approaches. But personally I think both are great! So I highly recommend trying to figure out grammar rules from a bunch of sentence examples (inductive) and also reading resources like John’s Pasden’s excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki (deductive) to fill in the gaps.

One more little tip: learning your native language as a kid and learning a foreign language as an adult are two very different processes. So don’t fall into the trap of over-comparing those two experiences.



Chinese ForumsThis is the only answer not delivered by an individual, but is instead the collected wisdom of Chinese Forums. The thread can be seen here and contains many interesting ideas and useful insights. I have selected a few to include in this article, mostly dealing with areas not covered by the above answers.

Li3wei1 on the difference between learning grammar in Chinese and many other languages:

I’d say in most other languages, there’s a lot of memorising that you have to do up front even to produce basic sentences: verb declensions, genders, irregular verbs. That is not necessary in Chinese, but in Chinese, when you get to the advanced level, there are hundreds of structures and patterns that need to be memorised. So the memorisation load comes later in Chinese than in other languages, at least as far as grammar is concerned.

Adam about the learning sequence:

In my case, I learned “street Chinese” for the first few years. I used characters like 就 and 才 in my speech without knowing why they were there or what their purpose was, just because that’s how I had “heard” it. It was only later, when I enrolled in formal classes that the grammar rules were explained to me. It made a lot more sense to me to see then because I had already observed all the use cases.

And finally, a recommendation from lakers4sho:

For each grammar point that I learn or revise, I write my own 例子 using the structure, not trying to make it as complicated, but actually trying to make it as simple as I can, just so that I can apply the structure correctly. I show the sentences to my teacher (this is important, make sure you ask someone who knows their grammar) and she can tell whether they are correct or not.

That’s all from the expert panel for now. If you have any questions, comments, opinions or experiences related to learning Chinese grammar, just leave a comment! I’m sure you’re not the only one who wants to ask that question and if you share what works for you, it’s quite likely it might work for someone else too!

The Cthulhu bubble and studying Chinese

What does learning Chinese have in common with Cthulhu? Quite a lot, actually. In this article, I will not only explain the concepts involved (I assume some readers aren’t familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft), but also discuss what they have in common. In doing so, I hope to give some valuable advice on how to handle tricky problems you will encounter in your Chinese studies.

Shub-Niggurath
Image credit: Dominique Signoret

The Cthulhu Mythos and the bubble

Cthulhu is a fictional entity created by the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and the Cthulhu Mythos is simply a convenient way of referring to the fictional universe created by him and later adapted and expanded by others.

There’s lots to read about Cthulhu online, but the most important thing for the purpose of understanding this article is what my maths teacher in high school called “the bubble”. This isn’t a fixed expression used by Lovecraft, but it describes well what I’m after here.

In essence, the world as we know it exists in a fragile bubble. Inside the bubble, things are calm and rule-bound, but outside the bubble, chaos and terror reign supreme. Sometimes, beings from the universe outside the bubble penetrate into our reality. Lovecraft’s stories are mostly about such occurrences and what happens to the poor humans who get in the way.

(If you want to read more about Cthulhu in Chinese, check this entry on Baidu; if you don’t feel that brave, you can check the article on English Wikipedia.)

In much the same way, what we know about Chinese constitutes a bubble in which things are relatively well ordered and where the Chinese we encounter coheres with our understanding of how the language works.

However, now and then we encounter things that don’t follow the rules we have learnt and turn our understanding of Chinese upside down. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the universe outside the bubble is chaotic rather than evil as such (although that might not matter to the victims). This isn’t actually true for Chinese since there are rules outside the bubble, it’s just that we haven’t learnt them yet. The experience is much the same, though.

I have created a small survival guide for adventurers. I can’t guarantee that it will stop you from going insane or help you survive, but it has served me well so far:

  • Make sure it’s a real monster and not a cultist dressed up as one – I don’t want to scare people more than necessary. Some of the things you encounter might look really scary, but if you look closer, they turn out to be okay. I’m not trying to make you stop looking closer at things that go against your current understanding of Chinese.
  • If it’s a real monster, don’t poke it – I’m serious about this. Some students want to go to the bottom of every single problem they encounter. This is madness. Some of the things you will learn (or try to learn) will be very hard and even f you get to the bottom of them, the knowledge is probably useless at your current level.

So, what to do when you encounter a real monster? Let’s look at a typical monster from beyond the bubble and how to handle it.

Before I go into details, I’d like to point out that the size of the bubble is of course different for different students. More advanced learners might not have a problem with this example, but I provide it as an example anyway and it is something that certainly puzzles most learners..

  1. We learn quite early that 好 can be used to emphasise an adjective. For instance, 好难 as in 爱一个人好难. This usage is similar to 很.
  2. If we add the negation 不 as in 好不容易, we’re still cool. Something is not very easy, i.e. quite hard.
  3. However, 好容易 also means that something is hard, i.e. not easy! According to what we’ve said above, this doesn’t make sense at all.
  4. To make it even worse, expressions like 好不热闹 and 毫不心疼 are actually affirmative, meaning that a place is very 热闹 or that something makes someone fell very 心疼.
  5. Sanity loss.

When you encounter words such as 好容易 and realise that it means the same as 好不容易, the best way is to not poke the monster in the eye. You don’t need to understand why these seemingly contradicting expressions actually mean the same thing, you just need to know what they mean.

It’s actually very simple: If you encounter a weird example, either ignore it or just memorise it. There’s nothing wrong with walking away and simply ignoring the exception. If you encounter it several times, perhaps it isn’t an exception and you need to adjust your mental models a bit, but ignoring something very strange or very hard the first time you see it is cool.

If you want to learn it for some reason, just memorise it. It isn’t worth the effort to spend an hour trying to understand something which won’t really make your Chinese better anyway, even if you might find the answer. The answers to these questions are easiest to find in Chinese, which means that native speakers also find them confusing (if you want one for the 好容易/好不容易, check this on Baidu).

Perfectionism is generally bad for you

You don’t need to completely understand every single character, word or structure when you read or listen to Chinese. If you only use textbooks , your bubble is very safe and neatly arranged for you, but as soon as you take the step to Chinese produced by natives for natives, you will find that weird things pop up all the time. If you pursue every exotic case you find, you will end up spending 90% of your time on 10% of the cases. This isn’t good. Don’t let perfectionism become an obstacle to progress.

Translating to improve your Chinese

Translation into the target language (Chinese in our case) is a very powerful way of improving mainly writing ability, but also speaking and vocabulary in general. It’s a method that works best for intermediate or advanced students. In fact, the better your Chinese is, the more you will benefit from translation. In this article, I will discuss why translation is so good, along with some tips on how to do it right. I’ve separated the first part of the discussion into two parts: beginner and non-beginner.

enchdictTranslation for beginners

Actually, translation is extremely hard to avoid as a beginner. When you see things around you, the first thing that pops up in your head is a word in your native language rather than a word in Chinese. This needs to be translated. The same goes for abstract thoughts or feelings. In general, this is something we want to avoid The goal for the beginner is to use less translation, not more! Thus you should wait until you reach an intermediate or advanced level before deliberately using translation as a tool to learn Chinese, because you’re likely to translate a lot even if you don’t want to.

Translation for intermediate learners and above

For the purpose of this article, I consider you to be an intermediate learner when you feel that you can express most of the things you want in Chinese, even though it isn’t always right or the best way of putting it. You feel relatively comfortable speaking about familiar topics, you have a solid foundation in general.

For the intermediate student, translation is an excellent way of widening your horizons and forcing you to explore unfamiliar territory. One problem with having achieved basic fluency in a language is that it feels quite good and we tend to stick to the words and patterns we already know. This means that our language will stagnate, so practising translation can be an impetus to your learning.

More than just writing about different topics

When I said “unfamiliar territory” above, I didn’t simply mean “new topics”. You don’t need translation for that, you can just write about different topics in Chinese without involving translation at all. No, I meant that you will be forced to use Chinese in ways you aren’t used to. If you write an article on your own, you can always rewrite a sentence if you encounter a structure you’re not sure how to use or a word you don’t know. When you translate, you can’t just skip an idea because it’s hard to express.

Research shows that both native speakers and second language learners are very good at using whatever language they have to express what they want. This is very good for communication, but not so good if we want to make our language richer. Thus, from a grammar/vocabulary perspective, translating is harder than writing a new text. Not only do you have to express something in Chinese, you also have to take the original into account and not deviate from it too much.

Don’t translate directly

We all know what happens when you translate directly from one language to another. It might work okay between related languages, but it doesn’t work at all when translating English to Chinese. Here’s a simple method you can try if you don’t want to get stuck in English grammar when writing Chinese:

  1. Locate the core concepts of a sentence
  2. Translate these words based on the context
  3. Put the translated words in random order
  4. Combine these words according to Chinese grammar
  5. Read the sentence and add elements that are lacking

Because of the scrambling in step three, you avoid being stuck in English grammar. You have the core concepts, now you need to combine them into a grammatically correct sentence in Chinese. When I started doing translations many years ago, I used to write down the core elements of a sentence in a list and then ignore the original and just think about how I could express the items in that list.

A closer look at the translation process

Translation is an immensely powerful tool for advanced learners. One of my favourite courses in university was Swedish to English translation. Now, you might think that my English is adequate, and you’d be right as long as I can choose topics myself. I still have gaps in my English ability and translation would be a very good way of addressing that problem, only if it weren’t for the fact that I care much more about Chinese these days.

This is what we used to do for our translation class. Before each lesson, we were sent one article written in Swedish and were asked to translate it into good English while keeping as close as possible to the original text. The articles were typically newspaper articles about different topics.

In class, we were divided into groups and each group was responsible for one paragraph. In essence, we were supposed to compare and discuss our translations and decide on the best possible translation of our paragraph. Then, all paragraphs were put together and the teacher went through the whole article with us, all in a very open atmosphere.

Students were encouraged to suggest changes, ask questions (would it be possible to use x here, I think y is a better choice than y in this sentence) and discuss. Inevitably, many discussions revolved about the meanings of different patterns and the usage of near synonyms. This is the kind of discussions advanced learners really need.

Every single step in this process taught me a lot. Not only did I spend time translating the article myself, I also had to motivate my choice of words, I received numerous other suggestions and had to decide whether they were sound or not. I encountered many new ways of expressing the same thing. Finally, I received feedback and had the option to ask question about some of the more interesting questions related to the article.

You can do all this on your own without paying a cent

Even though I would love to replicate this for learning Chines, it’s going to be very hard to find such an environment. Instead, I’ve been doing similar things on my own for several years now. As a result, I think my writing ability in Chinese is probably my strongest side. The process can be modified and changed in any number of ways, but this is what I normally do:

  1. Select a topic – This step is incredibly important. If you feel that it’s hard to get going, you should choose a topic you’re really interested in. Spending hours translating an article you think is boring is… well, boring. Don’t do it. If you feel up to it, select a topic you’re not familiar with. If you aim for proficiency in a certain area (language, business, technology) you can and should choose this kind of articles more often.
  2. Select a text – This is relatively straightforward, but there are two things you should keep in mind. First, if you want feedback, it’s helpful to choose articles in a language that your tutor, friend or language exchange partner can actually read. If you plan on doing this online, using English is by far the best choice, so do this if you can (I assume you can, otherwise you probably wouldn’t read this). Second, choose short articles, partly because this allows for more diversity, but also because it’s easier to get feedback from native speakers if you don’t write too much (I think you can guess I have some personal experience with this).
  3. Translate the text – This is what I’ve discussed above, so I won’t repeat myself. Depending on how advanced you are, you can set your goals slightly differently. Very advanced users should focus on making good translation, whereas intermediate students should focus on making adequate translations (i.e. expressing roughly the same meaning, but not necessarily in the same style).
  4. Receive feedback – Even though I think that the process of translation is very useful in itself, it would be a poor method without any kind of feedback. You need to know if the Chinese you’ve written makes sense, if you’ve violated any grammar rules and if a native speaker can understand your text in general. What looks like rock solid logic in your mind might be complete gibberish for a native speaker. This fact isn’t limited to translation, though. If you can’t get feedback from people around you, I suggest using Lang-8.
  5. Process the feedback – Once you know where you went wrong, you should correct your article. Make sue you understand most of the problems (but avoid perfectionism), add new words to your review software, look up relevant grammar if you need, post really tricky questions on Chinese Forums or Chinese Stack Exchange. Make sure you provide adequate information as well as your own attempt to solve the problem.

Chinese-English translations

Translating Chinese into English is also useful, but I don’t think it’s as important as translating into Chinese, mostly because it’s much easier. Another problem is that it’s much harder to receive proper feedback. To get feedback on a translation into Chinese, you need a native speaker who can read English at a decent level (this is not uncommon); in order to get feedback on translations into English, you need someone who is much better at English and whose Chinese is better than yours. There are much fewer of those people around. If you’re interested in Chinese-English (or Chinese to other languages), you should check out the Marco Polo Project.

Conclusion

I think translation is one of the best ways of keeping on improving writing beyond the intermediate level. Translation forces you into linguistic environments you wouldn’t have ended up in if you wrote the article yourself. Lastly, translation never becomes easy. It doesn’t matter how good your Chinese is, translating from one language into another will always be a challenge and you’re bound to benefit handsomely from the process.

Listening strategies: Improving listening speed

Now that I have cleared the main types of listening (background, passive and active listening), it’s time to look at something which is common to all of them: listening speed. This is a concept I think is both simple and useful. I have talked about it briefly in the article about problem analysis, but apart from that I haven’t found any references to “listening speed” in the sense I’m using the word here on the internet. I don’t say I’m the first or the only one using the word like this, but I hope this article will increase awareness of the phenomenon and its importance for improving listening ability.

In short, listening speed is the speed at which you can understand spoken Chinese.

It’s analogous to reading speed and works the same way. For instance, both listening and reading speed are influenced by the difficulty of the language you’re presented with. While I’ve seen many articles and books about reading speed (I’ve even written one myself!), I’ve never seen anything about listening speed. That’s what we’re going to talk about today, but before we do that, let’s look at the other articles in this series:

Image source: sxc.hu/profile/4seasons

Articles in this series:
Introduction
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed (this article)
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

What is listening ability?

According to my article about analysing problems with listening ability, we need five things in order to be able to understand what we’re listening to:

  1. Phonological awareness
  2.  Vocabulary and grammar
  3. Listening speed
  4. Motivation and a wish to understand
  5. Understanding of language and culture

In this article, we will look closer at the first two in order to understand how we can achieve reading speed.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is simply knowledge about the sounds of Standard Chinese. The sound inventory is relatively simple compared with some other languages, because Chinese doesn’t have that many different syllables (about 10% of the number in English), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn. Some sounds might not exist in your native language (zh/ch/sh, z/c/s for example) and many learners feel that these are difficult to distinguish and/or pronounce. The same is true for tones. Being able to distinguish all syllables from each other is the most basic skill we need in order to understand.

Vocabulary and grammar

Once you can distinguish the syllables and tones used in Chinese, you can map these sounds to meaning (vocabulary or grammar). I prefer doing this with a combination of exposure and spaced repetition software. However, it’s not obvious what “mapping sounds to meaning” actually means. I think there are two ways we can understand a word:

  • Depth – We can understand a wide variety of usages and nuances, we can use the word in many different contexts accurately
  • Speed – We can map the sound to the meaning of the word quickly, which is the essence of listening speed

The first of these two is what people mean when they say “I know this word”. However, as we shall see, I think how fast you know that word is of paramount importance for listening ability. This is what I call listening speed.

Listening speed

Let me use an example to illustrate what I mean when I say listening speed. The first time I see a word in Chinese and understand its meaning, either because I can guess it or because someone tells me what it means, a link is created between the sound and the meaning. For example:

tīng lì = listening ability

Next time I encounter this sound, tīng lì, I might or might not remember its meaning. If I do remember it, the recollection is probably not instantaneous; let’s say it takes me five seconds to search my mind and come up with the correct meaning. (The figures I’m use here are wild guesses and are merely included to illustrate my thoughts.) Next time I hear this word, the recollection will be quicker, let’s say it takes two seconds. Then one second. Gradually, as our brains get used to connecting the sound with the meaning, the process is completed more and more quickly.

Lack of listening speed

Assuming that we can distinguish the sounds used in Chinese and that our vocabulary is broad enough, we should be able to understand anything said to us in Chinese, and if we just know enough words we should be able to pass the listening test on the advanced HSK, right?

Wrong!

Even if you understand all the words, your parsing of the sentence and it’s meaning might be too slow. If the speed at which you process the audio you hear is slower than the rate of speech, you will have a problem. By my own non-scientific estimate, news broadcasts are typically read at a pace of 3-4 syllables per second, which gives something like 2-3 words per second. Thus, if you require more than half a second to understand what these words mean, you will get lost very quickly. This is of course a crude example and the actual speed required is faster than that, because you not only need to understand all the words, you also need time to understand the sentence as a whole and how it related to the topic in general.

The solution is simple: Listen more

I think the solution is very simple indeed: Listen as much as you can. Each time you hear a word you understand, the time required to retrieve that word will decrease. If you’ve learnt thousands of words in Chinese, you need to listen a lot before you’ve heard all those words a significant number of times. Before you have, you will continuously run into problems with listening speed. Note that you have to understand what you hear for this to be effective. You’re training your brain to link e.g. “tīng lì” to the meaning of “listening ability”, but if your brain can’t make the connection, it doesn’t count (it might still be good for practising other things, though).

A very simple solution is to use an SRS which is capable of reading all the words for you (Anki, for instance). For the purpose of listening speed, it’s of course better to have the audio on the front of the flashcard (as part of the question), but if that doesn’t work with how you’ve set up your cards (let’s say you’re testing yourself on the pronunciation of characters), you can still add the audio to the back of the card (as part of the answer), which means you will still hear the sound each time you review the card and can associate it with its meaning. Listening to the words in context is of course even better, but SRS is a very good start and an excellent complement.

Quantity is king

The more you listen, the better. In this case, it doesn’t need to be very advanced or hard, just listen as much as you can. Listening to the same audio more than once is fine, but don’t overdo it, because the brain is very good at learning context, which means that you might understand words only in the context you’ve encountered them, but not in others.

Thus, the best way to improve listening speed is listening to audio you can understand and do it a lot. This is the main reason why I think passive listening is so important! Without it, our brains would simply not be able to parse audio quickly enough to allow us to understand the meaning behind the sounds.

Use the benefits of teaching to boost your own learning

I think most languages have a saying or an idiom meaning that teaching is a great way to learn. This article isn’t about actual teachers and students (so don’t think that you need to be a teacher to benefit), but rather about a certain way of remembering and/or understanding things that are difficult and complicated. Studying Chinese, I think idioms and grammar are two good examples, but before we look closer at them, I’ll give you a background story.

Learning idioms by explaining them

Source: sxc.hu/profile/michelleho

Last year, I was preparing for a test and decided to learn quite a large number of idioms (成语) because I knew that some parts of the exam would be loaded with these and it would be hard to pass without having passive knowledge of them. Therefore, I generated a list of slightly more than one thousand idioms and learnt them over a relatively short period of time (less than a week). This was doable because I knew most of the characters in these idioms already, otherwise it would have been impossible (read more about learning individual characters here).

Even though I think idioms are interesting and I plan to write something about learning them in the future, the idioms themselves aren’t the topic of this article. Instead, I want to highlight something I noticed much later. I reviewed a number of these idioms together with a few friends (who don’t speak a single word of Chinese) and whenever I encountered an idiom I didn’t know, I checked the answer, gave them the four characters (translated into Swedish) and let them guess what the idiom meant. Then, I explained what it really meant and what the connection between the underlying characters and the surface meaning was.

The thing is that now, months later, I see a pattern. All those idioms I explained to my friends in Swedish are clear and vivid in my mind and I almost never fail them in my flashcard reviews. Other idioms from that batch have much higher failure rates. Now, the obvious explanation is that I simply spent more time learning these idioms and therefore I remember them better, but I don’t think that such an explanation is adequate (I spent only perhaps 30 seconds with an idiom, which isn’t much). Instead, I want to suggest another solution.

Explaining what you’re doing really helps your own learning

There is nothing truly controversial with the above statement, but have you really tried it? What I mean is that yes, time spent matters, but how you spend that time matters even more. If you spend 30 seconds writing a 成语 over and over, it is probably wasted effort. If you spend that time explaining to your friend why four characters combine to form an idiom, well, then that seems to be very effective indeed, at least in my case. Explaining something, you approach what you want to learn in a different way and create new links to other things you know. Simply repeating something isn’t always the best, even if you’re wise enough to use spaced repetition software.

Another reason teaching or explaining is so useful as a learning method is that you expose your own weaknesses. If you’re telling someone else about an idiom, you really have to know the component characters and the story behind the idiom, you can’t just say “oh, yeah, I know this” and skip to the next flashcard (and then only later find out that you actually weren’t sure about the last character). Explaining something is a good way of making sure that you understand the concept or idea yourself.

Teach your imaginary friend, teach yourself

Most of us don’t have friends sitting around all day, eager to hear us drawling about learning Chinese, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Explaining something to your imaginary friend is good enough (i.e., explain to yourself). To make this feel real and to ascertain that what you say makes sense, you should do one of the following:

  1. Actually explain the words aloud, imagining that you have a person in front of you
  2. Write the explanation down or draw pictures explaining it

This is a very active way of learning and/or reviewing which is useful whenever you encounter something you find difficult. It’s probably not very efficient for learning simple words, but it works well for leeches (i.e. flashcards that just refuse to stick in your memory and drain time and energy).

The Feynman Technique

This concept is similar to what Scott Young calls “the Feynman Technique” (watch his explanation on YouTube here). His idea is basically that you should reduce the concept you want to learn into manageable chunks that can be explained using everyday language you understand (in Chinese, this would mean using words you actually know, probably in your native language). In other words, you explain concepts as if you’re introducing them to a child or a complete beginner.

Image credit: xkcd.com

I mentioned grammar in the introduction and this is where I think this kind of thinking works best. If you encounter grammatical concepts you find hard to understand, write them down and explain them as if introducing them to someone who knows nothing. If you’re successful, you will have solidified a mental model of the grammar you’re trying to learn, and if you fail, you will at least know where you need to improve. Go back to your teacher and/or reference book and try again. Even if you don’t arrive at a perfect model (there might be no such thing), this process still helps you understand how the language works.

Mental models and learning

As I have argued elsewhere, learning a language is all about adjusting mental models of how the language functions. This means two things:

  1. You need exposure to real language (reading and writing, but also being corrected by others) to see if your model matches reality
  2. Models are by definition not the thing they represent and will therefore not be 100% accurate; you need to update them continuously

The Feynman Technique is really nothing more than an explicit way of enhancing and strengthening the models you have. The models are always there, but by writing them down or saying them aloud, you will be able to either understand better what you already know or you will find gaps or flaws in the models you currently have, which will prompt you to investigate further and update your models according to the information you find.

No substitute for actual teaching

Having taught both Chinese and English, I find that actual teaching is one of the best ways to learn. This is not to say that imaginary friends aren’t useful (they are), just that real students are better. Having taught Chinese pronunciation to classes of complete beginners several times, I know much, much more about it than I did before. This isn’t only because I’ve spent more time reading about it, but also because I’m forced to take implicit knowledge and make it explicit.

Also, a drawback of explaining things to yourself is that you’re probably not critical enough and you sometimes understand what you yourself are saying/writing, even if it wouldn’t make sense to a real beginner or an actual child. Students will ask lots of questions when they don’t understand (most of these questions are very hard to predict), which is a wonderful way of learning more.

Still, explaining to ourselves as if instructing beginners is very useful. Generally speaking, the more complicated the topic is, the better this method works. Give it a try next time you run into something you find hard to learn!

Finally, I’d like to ask a few questions:

  • Have you noticed positive effects of teaching Chinese (either as a real teacher or casually)?
  • Have you tried other ways of making implicit knowledge explicit (I can come up with some, but I’ll save them for the newsletter)?
  • Have you any other ideas or advice about implicit/explicit knowledge and/or teaching?

Using search engines to study Chinese

Studying on your own comes with certain problems I think all language learners have encountered many times. If you encounter a concept you don’t know how to say in the target language, you have to look it up. The first natural thing would be to look in a dictionary. If you’re lucky, the dictionary is comprehensive enough to include some examples of how the word is used, but more often than not, it will still not be enough to enable you to use the word in the sentence you’re making. If you have a corpus, it might be possible to find more help, but the problem with a corpus is that the sentences are usually way too difficult for beginner and intermediate learners and it will be hard to draw any conclusions.

Reaching this stage, most people would ask a teacher or a language exchange friend. However, I think there is one more step you should try before you tax your teachers and friends. It’s not that I don’t think you should rely on people to study, but I think there are more valuable things to discuss with your teacher and native speaker friends. This is what I call language question triage. Furthermore, studying in your home country might entail a serious lack of native speakers to ask (or there might just not be any around when you want an answer to your question). So, what’s this extra step?

Using search engines

I said dictionaries and corpora are limited, so why not use the entire internet? A search engine gives you access vast amounts of written text (you can of course use any search engine you want, but I’m going to use Google as an example here). Here are a few really useful things you can do with Google that most dictionaries can’t help you with.

  • Verify word usage
  • Compare word usage
  • Check grammar patterns
  • Learn through pictures

Verifying word usage

As soon as we leave the very basics of a new language, we usually have some idea how to say or write something, although we might not be sure if it’s correct. Sometimes, we know what a word means if translated into our native tongue, but we’re not sure if it can really be used in the context we want to use it in. In this case, using Google will be a great help. simply search for the word you’re looking for and browse through the results and see if any of the matches what you want to say.

If the word is part of a brand name or very common, you might have to skip the first several hundreds of hits, because you don’t want the word to be part of a headline or title, you want it in a sentence. If you think that a sentence requires a certain preposition, search for the relevant part of that sentence (don’t forget quotation marks!). The number of hits will tell you if the extra word is right or wrong.

Example: Let’s say you’ve learnt that you can double some characters to give the the meaning “each” or “every”, so 天天 means every day. But what which words can you really do that with? 年年?日日?Since we don’t want interference from other patterns or names, let’s add a 都 at the end.  Google  says yes, all are quite common:

天天都 39 000 000 hits
年年都133 000 000 hits
月月都17 000 000 hits
日日都29 000 000 hits

Comparing word usage

An even more powerful tool is comparison, although this is a bit more limited in scope. If you can’t decide whether alternative A or B is the correct one, use two separate searches and see which version comes out on top. This is probably the method I use the most when writing articles in English, such as this one, but increasingly often in Chinese as well.

Example: Do you have to use 都 in  a sentence like 我什么都不知道? Gooogle says yes, probably you should. If you check these results, you will see that the alternative without 都 also have lots of hits, but most of them are obviously not what you’re looking for (such as using commas, quotation marks, etc.)! If you want to express “don’t know anything”, 什么都不知道 is your preferred choice.

什么都不知道611 000 000
什么不知道319 000 000

Check grammar patterns

So, you’ve learnt a grammar pattern, but you’re not really sure how it’s used? Do a search for the pattern and see what you find. More often than not, there are plenty of examples telling you how those words are used. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how seldom textbook patterns are actually used, compared to abbreviated or modified informal ones! Searches like these might give better results using a corpus.

Example: You have seen 之所以… 是因为(因爲)in a book, but you’re not sure how to use it. Check the Google search results and you will know!

Learning through pictures

Using Google to search for pictures of the word you don’t know what it means is quite useful, especially if it’s something fairly concrete, such as a bird, a colour or an object. The dictionary might not have it, but once you see it, you definitely know what it is. This is especially useful if there are no good dictionaries for your native tongue and the target language (this is the case for me, so if I look up something and I’m not sure what the Chinese word means, a quick picture search will usually do the trick). This is extremely useful for food, clothes and animals.

For instance, what colour is 青? See the answer here.

Three words of warning

Using Google instead of asking real people isn’t a panacea. In fact, there are at least three real dangers, which I will talk about briefly now. First, the hits on Google might be completely irrelevant. For instance, the words might be next to each other, but in two different sentences with a full stop in between! This problem can be overcome by checking the hits you’re viewing. Of course, you can’t verify all of them, but you can make quick estimate.

Second, there is no guarantee that the articles you find will be correct, because a lot of people who are posting things on the internet aren’t native speakers (I think what I write is mostly correct, but I’ve probably polluted the internet a bit as well).  Of course, native speakers sometimes make mistakes, too. This problem is hard to overcome, but consider using a corpus, even though this isn’t guaranteed to be correct either.

Third, you will find examples how the language is used, which isn’t necessarily the officially correct way and thus might not go down well with your teacher. This problem is language dependent, since some languages might have very strict formal rules which differ a lot from colloquial usage; other languages might not. This problem is very hard to get around, so if it’s really important, real human help is necessary.

Then why?

If there are so many disadvantages with using a search engine to find the answer to your questions, why not ask a friend directly? That’s a good question. The reason I think this method is so useful isn’t because I don’t have friends to ask or because I don’t want to ask them. Rather, it’s because I want to ask them questions that I can’t find out for myself. Most of the time, the problems above are not relevant or can be overcome, and then there is no reason why you should need to ask other people to help you.

Save your friends’ valuable time until you really need it and use a search engine instead!

Listening ability, a matter of practice?

Many people have asked me how to improve listening ability, not only when learning Chinese, but when learning any language. The problem is that there seems to be no tactic to employ and no smart tricks; to get better at listening, you just need to practice. Is this really the case? Is listening ability simply about listening a lot? Can’t you hack it?

Image credit: geograph.org.uk/profile/12735

Let us look closer at what listening ability really is and what you need to do in order to understand something said to you.

  • Distinguish and identify sounds and tones
  • Associate sounds to meaningful words
  • Combine these words into sentences

Important: Some parts of this article have been rewritten expanded into a new article, specifically dealing with analysing problems with listening ability. This article is kept here because it offers a slightly different angle and contains some parts which aren’t about problem analysis.

Even though this is a simple analysis, we can see that listening is anything but simple. If you’re having problems with your listening ability, you might have problems with any or all of the above processes. Identifying which one you should focus on and figure out a way to do that is essential if you want to improve. Note that I don’t mean to say that these are sequential or even separate processes. A learner might have problem with any aspect or any combination of aspects at any time.

Distinction and identification problems

Since Chinese is a language with very few distinct sounds, this is a problem which should be most relevant for beginners. It may also happen to more advanced students when they encounter a strange dialect, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

Symptoms: You don’t seem to hear what people say. If someone asks you to write down what they say using pinyin, you don’t know what to write. You think that all syllables sound the same and the tones are just a mess.

If faced with this problem, it’s essential that you understand the sounds and what the differences between them are. Are you sure you know the difference in pronunciation between these:

宗 (zōng) – 中 (zhōng)
心 (xīn) – 信 (xìn)
再 (zài) – 菜 (cài)

If not, it’s quite obvious that you’re going to encounter listening problems. Focusing on learning to distinguish these sounds will not only help your listening ability, but will also allow you to pronounce Chinese more accurately. I think the best way to solve this is theoretical understanding plus lots of practise. You will get it.

Association problems

This is a problem for learners at all levels. All people, native speakers and second language learners alike, have a larger passive than active vocabulary. This means that we know words we can’t use. Being able to associate a sound in Chinese with a word is not easy and requires time. If you have never heard the word before, you’re going to fail most of the time. Even if you do remember the word, the time required to do this might lead to a failure to understand what’s being said anyway. This is about listening speed.

Symptoms: If given time, you can write down everything said to you in pinyin, but you still don’t know what it means, or at least you don’t know what it means quickly enough to make it understandable. There are two possible reasons. First, you might not know the word, and second, you might just parse the sounds too slowly.

In the first case you should learn more words; there probably are no shortcuts.

In the second case, you might just need more time to parse the sentence and associate what you hear with what you know. Listening more than once will alleviate any particular problem. To remedy the problem in general, you need quantity. Listen as much as you can, because every time your hear a word you know, the time you need to associate the sounds you hear to the meaning of that word will decrease.

Combination problems

Even if you can distinguish all sounds and can understand all the words, you’re still not home and dry, because you need to combine the vocabulary into meaningful sentences as well. This requires knowledge of grammar as well as being familiar enough with the words to parse them fast enough (see above).

Symptoms: You understand lots of words, but you still have no clue what someone is saying. It seems to be a jumble of random words that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

To get around this problem, you need to have solved the other two kinds of problems first. Then, you also need a fairly good grasp of grammar, because the problem you’re facing is that you can’t connect the parts of a sentence to a whole. The words used to do this is often grammar words like conjunctions linking sentences and sentence elements together. You need to know these words intimately, having to think five seconds before understanding what the following patterns mean is not good enough:

虽然… 但是 (雖然… 但是…)
以为… 其实… (以為… 其實…)
因为…所以…  (因爲… 所以…)
对…来说 (對… 來說…)
宁愿… 也不要… (寧願… 也不要…)

There are of course hundreds of these on different levels, but it’s essential that you know them and that you know them well. Focus extra on these in your textbook or elsewhere if you think long sentences are difficult. Understanding the structure of the sentence often allows you to guess the parts you don’t understand, but it’s very hard to guess the structure itself if you only know the parts.

Yes, listening is about practice

As we have seen, the remedy for most of these problems is simply to listen more. It will allow you to become familiar with the sounds, to associate sounds with words faster and to connect parts of a sentence into a meaningful whole. However, we have also seen that there are many things that can be don to enhance listening ability, such as focusing on key vocabulary.

Learning Chinese is easier than you think

When I tell people that I study Chinese, the reactions usually involve equal amounts of awe and curiosity.

“I’ve heard Chinese is the hardest language in the world!”
“Can you really pronounce all those weird sounds?”
“There are tones you can’t learn as an adult!”
“Do you really have to learn one character for every word?”
“Chinese is definitely too hard for me!”

Learning Chinese, a walk in the park?

Most of the above ideas are misconceptions, spread by native speakers and foreigners alike. Native speakers like to think that their own language is particularly hard and foreigners who have learnt the language are also interested in boosting their own accomplishments. The result is that most people I meet think that it’s almost impossible to learn Chinese and that only language prodigies can do it. This is nonsense. It all depends on perspective and attitude, which is what I’m going to talk about in this post.

Why the question of difficulty is bunk

Whether you think something is difficult or not depends on what you already know, so saying that Chinese is harder than French is not a meaningful statement in general. Saying that Chinese is harder to learn for an English-speaking person than French is more meaningful. For a more detailed discussion about the difficulty of learning Chinese, check this article: Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months? and Is Chinese difficult to learn? This article will focus on aspects that make Chinese easier than you think.

Learning Chinese is easier than you think

Every language has its own unique features that might be regarded as difficult or troublesome in some way, but I believe that focusing on these problems is counterproductive for language learning. If you want to learn something, you want to become friends with it, you don’t want to regard it as an unbeatable enemy! I won’t deny that Chinese has unique challenges that are difficult to overcome, but try to look at them as being fascinating and exciting, rather than difficult or, even worse, impossible. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy right there.

9 things that makes Chinese easier than you think

Here are a few things that make Chinese easier to learn:

  • No grammatical cases – Chinese words don’t change according to function. Police is written the same way regardless if it’s the subject of the clause or it’s the object. Whatever function a word has in a sentence, it generally looks the same.
  • Flexible parts of speech – For non-natives, a difficult part of learning English is to figure out how to make a noun out of a verb or an adjective out of a verb. In Chinese, it’s not obvious what’s an adjective and what’s a verb, they merge and float into each other, which generally means it’s easier to understand and also easier to guess how to use.
  • Particles instead of inflections – Although it’s not true that Chinese is entirely free from inflections (such as “rain-ed” or “fox-es”), particles are used to represent such things. A particle might indicate that an action is completed or that there is a collection of something, but these particles are always the same and not dependent on the word preceding it!
  • No gender – Most people who learn languages where gender is important whine about it. German has three genders you have to learn, Swedish and French have two, and there are few rules to help you here! In Chinese, you don’t need to bother, because there is no such thing as grammatical gender.
  • No tenses – Chinese doesn’t distinguish between yesterday, today and tomorrow in the same way as we do in English. Most of the time, it’s simply indicated by a word describing when something happens, rather than changing the structure of the sentence. Verbs do not change their form based on when they took place.
  • Neat use of numbers – Chinese is sometimes ridiculously logical. Monday is “week one”, Tuesday is “week two”, Wednesday “week three” and so on. Same for the months! The number 1 is simply “one”, 11 is “ten, one”, 99 is “nine ten, nine”, 945 is “nine hundred, four ten, five”.
  • Logical character creation Chinese characters aren’t random brush strokes, there is reason behind these mysterious and beautiful symbols. It’s usually not enough to let you guess what it means, but it is a powerful tool to help you remember.
  • Logical word creation Words, i.e. characters put together, contain a lot more meaning than characters. They are created in a way which is often obvious or at least understandable for a student. Train is “fire vehicle”, train station is “fire vehicle station”. Few words are completely arbitrary, even on the surface!
  • Straightforward word order – Sentence structure is easy to learn, and even though there are exceptions, a simple formula can be followed most of the time and the result will be, if not entirely correct, then at least comprehensible.

A question of perspective

Now imagine trying to learn English if your native language has the above characteristics. This means you suddenly have to deal with a wide variety of problems you didn’t even know existed! I’ve helped many Chinese speakers learn English and I feel that their quest is at least as challenging as ours, coming from the other direction. If you look at the English written by native Chinese speakers, you can see what I mean.

Before it’s time to end this article, I should point out that learning any language unrelated to your own will take a lot of time, especially if you plan to learn it to an advanced level (and to be honest, Chinese becomes much more difficult when you go from trying to be understood to being idiomatically correct). Learning to read and write Chinese takes a lot longer than learning to speak, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.

Learning Chinese is not impossible

If you think that it’s almost impossible to learn Chinese to a level where you can chat freely with Chinese people, you are mistaken. If you don’t spend all your time writing characters, I know for a fact that you can be conversant in Chinese fairly quickly (Scott Young came pretty far in 100 days). Mastering the language takes a very long time, but conversational fluency is another matter. For a continued discussion of the difficult of learning Chinese, see this article linked to above!