Learning Chinese by enrolling in a course and using a textbook is a great way to provide structure to your learning. Sure, it’s possible recreate this outside the classroom, but to be honest, the amount of effort and dedication needed means it’s not for everyone. I have studied Chinese in many different types of courses and classrooms and have learnt a lot from teachers and textbooks!
Well-meant simplifications, misleading explanations and actual errors
When explaining something to students, as a teacher or textbook author, there’s always a compromise between accuracy and simplicity. Ideally, descriptions of the language should be both accurate and simple to understand, but that is almost never possible. Language is an organic entity that can seldom be reined in by succinctly formulated rules. Thus, you never actually hear or see the whole truth in your classroom or textbook. This is acceptable.
What is not acceptable is when your teacher or textbook is outright wrong! I don’t mean that there is more to it than what is being shown (that is always the case), I mean that what is shown is incorrect. Neither do I mean that it’s a well-meant simplification. I can accept that complex phenomena are explained in simple terms that are partly inaccurate, I do that myself all the time (and will do so later in this article!), but I can’t accept when explanations are made up or when an explanation is so misleading that you would have been better off without it entirely.
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7 things you were taught in Chinese class that are actually wrong
Naturally, I don’t know exactly what you learnt in Chinese class, but I have studied dozens of textbooks and spoken to hundreds of students with varying backgrounds over the years, so I think I can say with certainty that the examples I give in this article are somewhat common. Even if your textbook contains these errors (and many do), any competent teacher should be able to deal with them easily.
Here are the errors in the simplest and most direct form (simplified/traditional when relevant):
1. 几/幾 (jǐ) can only represent numbers between 0 and 10
For example, asking someone 你几岁/你幾歲 (nǐ jǐ suì) only works if you expect an answer within this range (i.e. only for young children), and if you expect ten or fewer people to come, you should ask 有几个人要来/有幾個人要來 (yǒu jǐ gè rén yào lái). If the number is more than 10, you should use some other phrasing, such as 你多大 (nǐ duō dà) or 有多少人要来 (yǒu duōshao rén yào lái).
This is obviously not how people use these words. It’s very common to use 几/幾 to indicate numbers that are much bigger than 10. I have been asked 你几岁/你幾歲 many times when I was closer to 40 than 10. It’s perfectly acceptable to say 有几个人要来/有幾個人要來 even if you think the answer might be 25. It’s true that 几 is often used for things that are more easily countable (lower numbers, countable nouns), but saying that it’s limited to 0-10 is just wrong. There are of course other examples where it’s even more obvious, such as dates (一月几号/一月幾號, yīyuè jǐhào). Perhaps the notion of it being limited to 10 is because it would be neat if 几/幾 was a stand-in for one single character (and numbers above ten are of course mostly written with more than one character).
2. 你好 (nǐhǎo) is an informal greeting and 您好 (nínhǎo) is the formal version
In many textbooks, friends greet each other with 你好, but when they meet the teacher the first time, they say 您好 to be polite. Sometimes, 你好 is just translated as “hello” and 您好 is translated as “hello (polite)”, sometimes 你好 is actually translated as “hello (informal)”.
The incorrect part of this statement is that 你好 is not an informal greeting. In fact, it’s rather formal and is normally only used when talking to strangers or people you don’t know very well. Chinese people don’t say 你好 to friends or family. Of course, 您好 is also formal, just a notch more polite, so that part of the statement is correct. So, what are some ways of saying “hello” that are actually informal then? Well, there are many options, but easy ones are 嘿 (hēi), 嗨 (hāi) and 哈罗/哈羅 (hāluó). Slightly trickier ones include asking questions that are appropriate for the situation, such as 你吃饭了吗/你吃飯了嗎 (nǐ chīfàn le ma) or 去哪儿/去哪兒 (nǐ qù nǎr).
3. 中文 (zhōngwén) can only be used to refer to written Chinese
Since 文 means written language, 中文refers to the written language. If you want to refer to spoken Mandarin, you should use some other regionally appropriate word, such as 汉语/漢語 (hànyǔ) , 普通话/普通話 (pǔtōnghùa), 华语/華語 (húayǔ) or 国语/國語 (guóyǔ). The same can be said for other languages, so you should use 英文 (yīngwén) for written English and 英语 (yīngyǔ) for the spoken language.
it’s very common to use 中文 for spoken Chinese or use the version with 文 for other languages and mean the spoken language. It’s true that 文 means written language, but it’s just not true that 中文 can only be used to refer to the written language. For example, 说中文 (shuō zhōngwén) has more than four million hits on Google (for comparison, 说汉语 has only one third of that). You will also hear people say that your 中文 sounds very nice, and that your pronunciation is great. This is even more true for other languages; I don’t think I’ve ever met someone making a difference between 英文 and 英语 in a conversation. If you really want to make that difference, use 书面[language] and [language]口语 (that’s shūmiàn and kǒuyǔ).
4. 了 (le) indicates past tense
Most experts say Chinese does not even have tense, so saying that 了 indicates past tense is wrong and misleading. Chinese does have aspect, though, which is more than a difference in terminology. Tense is used to refer to when something happened in time (past, present, future); aspect refers to the state of an action or event, regardless of when it happened. Fully explaining 了 is probably the most difficult part of Chinese language pedagogy, and I will not attempt to do so here, but I’ll point you in the right direction: The two basic usages are to indicate a change of state and to show that an action is completed. Note that none of these refer to when the action took place.
5. The third tone is often pronounced as falling-rising (dipping) tone.
The third tone is almost never pronounced as a falling-rising (dipping) tone, but is instead mostly pronounced as a low tone (i.e. no rise at the end). This happens in a vast majority of cases, such as in front of a first, second or fourth tone. It is even often pronounced as just a low tone at the end of sentences! The only case where it’s usually pronounced as a falling-rising (dipping) tone is in isolation, such as when you say a single number (五, wǔ). It can also be pronounced like that when a single syllable is heavily stressed. Naturally, native speakers pronounce a word like 想要 (xiǎngyào) with a only a low tone on 想, but some teachers change their pronunciation to falling-rising (dipping) when they speak very slowly, as they sometimes do in a classroom, unaware that they normally don’t say it like that. This can be very confusing for students! The third tone is quite complicated, so I have written a separate article about it here.
6. Chinese characters are composed of radicals
Radicals are the smaller parts in compound characters and are therefore the building blocks of Chinese. Learning radicals is important both for understanding and learning Chinese characters.
This is a misunderstanding of how Chinese characters work. Radical, or 部首 (bùshǒu, literally “section head”), refers to the headings of sections used in dictionaries to sort characters. For example, the radical in 样 (yàng, “appearance; shape”) is 木 (mù, “tree”), which means that if you want to look this character up in a traditional dictionary, you will find it in the section labelled 木. In that character, 羊 (yáng, “sheep”) is not the radical. You will therefore not find the character by going to 羊 in the dictionary. To summarise, radical is a function that one (and only one) component in a character has, and this function is related to dictionaries, not the actual composition of the characters.
So what are the building blocks of Chinese characters, then? Well, the building blocks are functional components, i.e. parts of a character that is there for a function (or that had a function when they were created). 木 and 羊 are both components, but they serve different functions in different characters. In 样, 木 is a meaning component (the full character originally referred to a fruit growing on a tree); 羊 is a sound component, meaning that it’s there because of how it’s pronounced (note that the pronunciation is the same, except the tone). Learn more about sound components here:
Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters
In other characters, these components can have other functions. Radicals are only important because many of them (but certainly not all) also happen to be common semantic components. Thus, if you learn the 100 most common radicals, you will learn components that are very common, but the fact that they are radicals is not important. For example, you do not need to learn which component is the radical in each character you learn. There are also many other components that are very common but are never used as radicals!
7. 小姐 (xiǎojiě) is suitable form of address for young women.
Or at least partly wrong, depending on where you are and exactly what you say. In Taiwan, 小姐 is indeed a suitable form of adress and can be used freely, for example when you want to call the attention of a young lady who just dropped her wallet on the metro. However, in Mainland China, 小姐 has the additional meaning of “prostitute”, which makes it unsuitable as a form of adress. Not that it’s as bad as some people claim (and perhaps people are more relaxed about it nowadays), but it’s safer to stay away from it. If you add a family name in front of 小姐, it’s always okay, so 王小姐 (Wáng xiǎojiě) is not a problem. If you want a neutral and polite form of address, you can use 女士 (nǚshì) . In Mainland China, 美女 (měinǚ) also works.
Bonus: 从来 (cónglái) can only be used negatively
This is something I’ve heard from many teachers and seen in many textbooks, saying in essence that 从来 can only be used to say thing that you have never done or that have never happened. This is wrong! Sentences like 我从来都买他们的东西 (wǒ cónglái dōu mǎi tāmen de dōngxi) are perfectly normal and quite common.
What were you taught that you later figured out was actually wrong?
I have probably missed some obvious candidates and I would be delighted if you left a comment with your examples of things you learnt in Chinese class, but later learnt were actually wrong! Please note that I don’t mean merely “not used as much (or even at all)”, I’m only interested in things that are actually wrong and/or seriously misleading.
Editor’s note: I have removed a section about the usage of 不 (bù) without a verb from this article, not because it was wrong, but because it was difficult to come up with good examples and that it isn’t really something I want to encourage learners to do. Instead, I have added a new section about radicals not being the building blocks of Chinese, which is probably both more widespread and has more of an impact on one’s understanding of Chinese characters.
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Regarding use 不 being used on its own to answer questions, I never heard this in Taiwan but when I left Taiwan I lived with a girl from Wuhan and heard it very often. At first it even sounded odd to me and I wasn’t sure if it was a regional thing or something everyone in mainland China did.
As for Taiwanese Mandarin, my friend from Wuhan found 不會 very strange. You can use 不會 to answer questions where the 會 has no obvious meaning and is just being added because a single 不 sounds off to the ears of Taiwanese people. That’s my guess. Taiwanese also add it to questions where it isn’t really needed to soften the tone.
Maybe some other simplifications in how Chinese is thought could include neglecting to teach about topic prominent sentences that don’t start with the subject like 袋子你要嗎 . Also utterances that just drop the subject will almost always be corrected by a Chinese teacher, even though conversationally it’s quite common in Chinese. In Japanese as a second language education they teach that sentences without subjects are common, although it’s even more common in Japanese than in Chinese so it’s hard to avoid for them maybe.
Interesting that you mention regional differences for 不, which could very well be the main reason it took me so long to figure out that it could be used independently (having spent most of my time in Taiwan as well). I didn’t mean this article to be about simplifications, but actual errors, but it seems there is probably call for another somewhat less polemic article about “things you were told are very straightforward, but actually aren’t”. Word order would be high on that list, including examples like the one you mentioned. Or native speakers saying things like 我明天去应该 or 气死我了你. Still, I think these are cases of benevolent obfuscation, meaning that I don’t think the teacher or textbook should teach the full answer from the very start as that’s not really helpful. Learn Subject-Verb-Object first, it makes things easier.
My Chinese mother-in-law always says 不是，pronounced in very strong accented Sichuan version (buse), and she seems to use it as a sort of universal “no”. Did not hear others to use it so much as her, though.
Yes, that’s perfectly normal and it’s taught in most textbooks as well!
*Simplifications in how Chinese is taught. Excuse my poor English haha
I tried to address this in the article. These are not simplifications, or at least they are not only simplifications. I did acknowledge that simplifications are okay, even necessary. However, the things I mention here are actually wrong, not just a selected part of the truth meant to help students.
Liked the point about the third tone. It’s definitely taught in a very different way to how it’s actually used, and that caught me out for a long time!
I’d suggest 哈咯/哈喽 for casual greetings (I very rarely hear 哈罗 in Beijing, at least) and of course the very casual “干嘛去？”
(You have a small typo in point 1: 你九岁 instead of 你几岁).
I fixed the typo, thanks! I actually find myself saying 哈喽 in English (i.e. with the correct pronunciation in Mandarin, which is of course slightly different from an actual “hello”). I didn’t realise I did this until someone who didn’t speak Chinese pointed it out to me. 🙂
That there’s no way to write 妳.
The part about 你好 makes me angry. The third tone even moreso. Why do textbooks lie like that? I thought they were written by professors, who know better!
Generally, the teaching of Mandarin is, er, very poor (to keep it polite). Most students are being ripped off. Just look at the amazing variety and sophistication of Japanese learning materials, or compare the effectiveness of informal Mandarin learning to see why – and don’t even think of comparing Mandarin learning to that of major European languages: it will only make you depressed.
Third tone is definitely the worst abuse of Chinese teaching…I teach middle school and high school Chinese and it actually hurts my credibility (in some students’ eyes) when I teach them correctly, but the textbooks insist of a rising third tone. 麻烦！
Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it’s fine when all students are new, but it gets weird sometimes when I teach a course where some of the students have actually studied some Chinese before. I prefer to not even mention the dipping for a while, but it’s kind of unavoidable because they think you’re just incompetent if you don’t, since your way of teaching clashes with what they already know.
Really glad to see these comments, especially about the 3rd tone. I remember many years ago a teacher finally said to me to “just keep the low tone low” and suddenly my spoken Chinese was more comprehensible to native speakers.
This kind of article is really useful!
The point about family and friends not using 你好 , I guess, is similar to the fact that they generally don’t need to say 谢谢, which is very strange for English-speakers, at least.
(A typo in the 2nd para: ‘reigned’ should be ‘reined’.)
Yes, the 谢谢 thing is similar, but not the same. Note that what I’m complaining about here is that 你好 is incorrectly presented to students, which is not the case for 谢谢. It’s not that 你好 is used less than you’d think, it’s that it doesn’t mean what it says it means, so the basic definition is incorrect. For 谢谢, there’s nothing wrong with how it’s described, but you’re right that there is a cultural difference which results in much fewer 谢谢s being uttered in families, at least compared to what I would expect (not sure how Sweden compares to the US, for example).
As an aside, I think these cultural differences are very interesting, because they give rise to fairly difficult question. I mean, if you interact with the general public in a country, I think you’re expected to follow the norms in that culture. But that’s not really true for family. I mean, the fewer people are involved, the more each might compromise. You can’t expect a billion Chinese to change their ways because of you, but you can kind of expect one Chinese person to do so and meet you half way (or one third or whatever). For example, I say 谢谢 to my wife quite often, although perhaps less than I would to my parents or siblings. She says 谢谢 to me too, but probably less than I do, but still more than she’s used to. Interesting!
(I fixed the typo, thanks!)
I just learned yesterday that you don’t always need 吗 or a question word/phrase (什么，对不对，呢等) to indicate a question. You can just use a rising intonation as in English. I had always been told (over ten years, multiple teachers, various textbooks) that you need a question indicator of some kind, but my current teacher is adamant that very often just a rising intonation is used without any question indicator, and is still perfectly correct. E.g. 你喜欢听音乐?
Good point! This, I think, qualifies as something relatively common that is actually incorrect (as you say). As a teacher, I think the reason you stress that a question word or particle is needed is because trying to teach intonation and tones at the same time is really, really hard. I mean, it’s hard enough for most students to grasp tones, and then when you mix in intonation… well, that’s just not something you want to do with beginners. Since it’s much easier to stay with question words or particles, that’s what teachers do. I do the same! Well-meant and reasonable obfuscation, in other words. 🙂
This is really great info Olle, and anyone who has struggled for years with learning Mandarin can appreciate the great way you have explained these misconceptions. 谢谢