Mistakes are a natural part of learning a foreign language and something students of Chinese have to deal with on a daily basis. As soon as you start speaking and writing, you will make mistakes, and this is okay. Using the language is an effective method of mapping the boundaries of what works in Chinese, and more importantly, what doesn’t work.
While we can and should listen and read as much as possible to provide our brains with the necessary input to build a good mental model of the language, input only provides us with positive evidence of how things are expressed, not negative evidence of how things can’t be expressed. So, in that sense, making mistakes is not only a natural part of learning a language, it’s also necessary to tweak your mental models of the language.
Students often focus on the superficial effect of making a mistake, usually in an emotional way, because many think it’s bad or embarrassing to say something wrong. This is nonsense, of course, because what matters is the reason the mistake was made. If you truly think that a way of saying something is right when in fact it is not, saying it out loud and receiving feedback just makes the problem visible. Staying silent might make you feel less embarrassed, but your mental model is still wrong.
In this article, I’m going to discuss mistakes and errors when learning Chinese. The reason is that not all mistakes are equal, and depending on what kind of mistake you make, the remedy is also different, ranging from ignoring the matter entirely to stopping everything else you’re doing to get to the bottom of it right away. Your proficiency level also matters, as some mistakes are unavoidable as a beginner and nothing to worry about, whereas the same mistake on an advanced level might indicate that your foundation is wobbly.
How do I know that I’ve made a mistake?
This question can sometimes be easy to answer (“because the Chinese person I was talking to didn’t understand what I was trying to say”), and sometimes difficult (“I’ve been saying this for years, but no one has told me it’s actually wrong”). Getting high-quality feedback on your Chinese is not easy, but still important. I’ve written an entire article about this here: How to get honest feedback to boost your Chinese speaking and writing
In short, there’s implicit feedback, meaning that people use indirect means to show that what you said isn’t right, often not deliberately, such as looking confused or failing to understand what you said. The problem with this type of feedback is that you can’t be sure if you actually made a mistake and if you did, what the mistake was.
Then there’s explicit feedback, which is when someone tells you that what you said or wrote isn’t right, hopefully with a suggestion for how to improve. This has the advantage of being clear that there is a problem and also makes it more likely that you know what the problem was.
Try to behave in a way that makes it more likely that you will receive more feedback in the future. This involves having a positive attitude, trying to understand the problem and not making a fuss. The person giving you feedback has done you a favour, so you should act accordingly. Never ever shoot the messenger; the problem was there all along, pointing it out just made it visible!
To make identifying mistakes even harder, native speakers make mistakes, too, and sometimes their explanations are less than helpful. It’s not unusual to one day get told that A is the right way to say it, and then the next day hear from somebody else that A is totally wrong. I’ve written more about this here: Can native speakers be wrong about Chinese grammar and pronunciation?
Four types of mistakes and errors, and what to do about them
So you know that you’ve made a mistake, but what do you do then? How can this help you improve your Chinese? The answer depends on what type of mistake you’ve made and your proficiency level. Below, I will discuss four types of mistakes, even though I will call the two of them “errors” rather than “mistakes”. Here they are:
- Careless mistakes: You know what’s right, but you mess it up for some reason
- Uninformed mistakes: You can’t be expected to know what’s right, and so you mess it up
- Isolated errors: You know what’s right, but it doesn’t apply in this particular case
- Systematic errors: You think you know what’s right, but it’s actually wrong
These categories are just meant to help you analyse the mistakes and errors that you make in order to help you deal with them. While you could stop each time something goes wrong and analyse which category the situation should be sorted into, in most cases, this will be obvious. The point I want to convey here is that what is the right thing to do in one situation might be bad in another; all mistakes and errors aren’t equal.
In general, I define making a “mistake” as when you say or write something wrong, but where there isn’t an underlying problem with your mental model of the language. In contrast, an “error” is a problem not with the superficial production of language, but with the underlying mental model. Let’s look at each of the four categories one by one:
Careless mistakes: You know what’s right, but you mess it up for some reason
Slips of the tongue or typos are common not only for foreigners, but for native speakers as well. You know what you want to say, but for some reason you still get it wrong. It might be because you speak or write too quickly, or it might be because you’re overwhelmed with other things and simply can’t cope with everything at once.
The best way to determine if a mistake belongs to this category is if you can spot it yourself: if you can, it’s a careless mistake, but if you need someone else to point it out for you, it’s not. It’s not necessary for you to be able to do this on the fly, but if you read a text you’ve written again or listen to a recording of your spoken Chinese, you’ll probably notice many things you know are wrong and that you could do better if you tried again.
Treatment: Regardless if you’re a beginner or an advanced learner, this type of mistake is not very serious, at least not for language learning purposes (of course, it could be serious for other reasons, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). If you hear that you pronounced a word incorrectly or notice a type in something you wrote, just correct yourself. Apart from making communication easier, this also prevents the other person from wasting time correcting something you could have corrected yourself. If a student hands in a text which is rife with typos, they’re less likely to receive good feedback on other, more serious problems.
If someone corrects your careless mistake, it’s easy to want to clear your name and point out that you actually know that it was wrong, but this doesn’t really help; just stick to the guidelines above: be positive and don’t make a fuss. You know that you actually know the right way to say it; you don’t need to prove that to someone else.
Also remember that from the other person’s point of view, there’s no way to know if your typo is just a typo or if it’s a sign of your mental models being wrong. If you type 看地懂 (kàn de dǒng), I don’t know if you accidentally typed 地 instead of 得, or if you if you don’t know the difference between 地 and 得.
Uninformed mistakes: You can’t be expected to know what’s right, and so you mess it up
This kind of mistake is common among beginners: your mental model of Chinese simply doesn’t cover what you want to express, and so you guess. If Chinese were related to your native language, you might stand a good chance to get it right anyway, but for most readers of this article, the chances of getting away with guessing are rather slim. Still, if you need to be able to communicate in Chinese, you can’t avoid making this type of mistake.
If someone highlights one of your uninformed mistakes, view that as a learning opportunity. Maybe you didn’t know that rain in Chinese is big rather than heavy (雨很大, yǔ hěn dà vs. 雨很重 yǔ hěn zhòng), maybe it’s something else. While you’re not very likely to be able to just absorb this new expression immediately, you’ve taken your first step towards learning it. If it’s a common expression, you’re likely to notice it when listening and reading, and wonder why you hadn’t noticed it before.
Treatment: Take notes if you think what you have learnt is important enough to learn. If it’s something that’s way above your current level, just ignore it. However, if you’ve already reached an advanced level, I would be very careful indeed and write down any new things you learn that you really ought to know.
Isolated errors: You know what’s right, but it doesn’t apply in this particular case
We’re now leaving the territory of mistakes and entering the realm of errors. Like I said earlier, this means that the problem is that you have enough data to think you know how to say something, and that in general your mental model is correct, it’s just that it doesn’t work in this particular case. Most of these errors come from learning or inferring a rule and then applying the rule where it shouldn’t be applied.
A common beginner error is to think that 和 (hé) can be used to link clauses in Chinese, just like it can in English. While we can say “I like to watch movies, and I also like playing basketball” in English, 我喜欢看电影和我也喜欢打篮球 (wǒ xǐhuan kàn diànyǐng hé wǒ yě xǐhuan dǎ lánqiú) is wrong in Chinese; 和 is only used to link parts within in a clause, as in 你和我 (nǐ hé wǒ) or 我会说英文和法语 (wǒ huì shuō yīngwén hé fǎyǔ). This doesn’t mean that you have completely misunderstood what 和 means, but you need to adjust your mental model a bit. Another beginner error is to say things like 他五年 (tā wǔ nián), not realising that there’s a specific word you need to use when talking about age (it should be 他五岁 (tā wǔ suì)
Another example is idioms. It’s common for learners or all levels to assume that they have a wider usage than is actually the case. I remember learning 十全十美 in my first semester, and then trying to apply it in real-life conversations. I think I used it incorrectly the first ten times, basically using it when I would have said “perfect” in English. I wrote more about learning idioms here:
Treatment: Take notes! This is a very important part of going from “being able to make yourself understood” to “speaking good Chinese”. While you in some situations can communicate speaking English but with Chinese words, this won’t take you very far and you need to constantly update your mental models. This is mainly done through reading and writing (especially of the extensive kind), but when you make errors of this kind and someone is kind enough to point them out, pay attention.
If you’re using a flashcard app to support your learning, you might want to add a card or two with the correct construction. This will probably be enough to remember it and stay clear of the incorrect one, even though you will of course slip back into old habits occasionally. That, however, is an example of a careless mistake, and those are neither as important nor as interesting.
Systematic errors: You think you know what’s right, but it’s actually wrong
Sometimes your mental model of how something in Chinese works is just wrong. It’s not just that you apply a rule in some cases where it shouldn’t or that you think a word can be used in a given context where it actually can not, but that your fundamental understanding is flawed. As a result, you’re likely to consistently get things wrong, potentially with an endless number of examples.
A good example of this is if you think 了 (le) is a past-tense marker. This does indeed match some of the evidence you encounter when listening and reading, but it’s actually wrong. Chinese doesn’t really have tense in the way English does, but we do often talk about aspect. The difference is that tense talks about when something happens (as if on a timeline), whereas aspect is more about the status of the action. Thus, 了 (when used after the verb) marks completion, which can take place in the past, present or future. I included this in my article about 7 things you were taught in Chinese class that are actually wrong:
Another example I also brought up in that article is the third tone. Many students misunderstand how this tone works and pronounce it as a rising tone when it’s supposed to be only a low tone. In words like 老师 (lǎoshī), 美国 (měiguó) and 想要 (xiǎngyào), the tone on the first syllable is low, but the number of Americans who pronounce the name of their own country as méiguó is astounding. Naturally, this is not limited to Americans; I myself misunderstood how the third tone worked, and it took much effort to fix. I wrote more about learning the third tone here:
Treatment: This type of error can be serious, and depending on how long you’ve been wrong, hard to correct, so the earlier you spot them, the better. The process of fixing systematic errors is to first understand them, then start paying attention to the correct form when you listen and read. The more you’re exposed to the correct forms while also paying attention to them, the more likely you are to also produce the correct forms yourself. If you think the problem is serious, you should also practise the correct form directly, preferably with the aid of a teacher or friendly native speaker.
Exactly how to do this depends on what kind of error it is, but after you think you know what’s right, immediate feedback works rather well. When I tried to fix my third tones, I started with making sure I could hear the difference, which was difficult in itself, then moved on to trying to say it myself while receiving direct feedback. When I started, maybe I got it right 60% of the time, but with some practice, that inched up to 70%, then 80%. A decade later, it’s still not 100%, although I do usually hear the mistake when I make it these days (it’s more a careless mistake now, in other words).
How mistakes and errors can help you improve your Chinese
Both mistakes and errors can be used to improve your Chinese, but as we have seen, how you approach them depends on the type. Mistakes are not very interesting for the language learning process and you should try to not feel too bad about them. Errors, on the other hand, are interesting, because they highlight flaws in your mental model of Chinese. If you don’t do anything, you will make these errors again and it will have a negative impact on your performance, although how much of course depends on the error. When it comes to systematic errors, they can cause problems across large swatches of the language, so the earlier you take action to fix them, the better.
The most important lesson is that while it would be better if you didn’t make any errors because your mental model was close to that of a native speaker, this is never the case. What you actually say or write, the error itself, is only a symptom that can tell you something about the underlying problem. Thus, saying or writing something that’s wrong in Chinese is not in itself bad, because your mental model would be wrong even if you kept your mouth shut, but if you do speak and identify an error, at least you know what you did wrong and you have a chance to fix it!
Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2011, was rewritten (almost) from scratch in June 2022.
Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox
I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!