Common pitfalls for beginning Chinese learners

I thought it might be helpful to make a list of common mistakes beginning Chinese learners make. I’ll list them here, then expand in subsequent posts about what I mean and how to avoid them.  So my short list includes:

  • Pronunciation–more specifically, tones, consonants, and vowels (that probably just about covers it for the beginner)
  • Assuming the grammar is like English
  • Assuming the grammar is like English, only easier
  • Assuming words are words
  • Assuming that knowing a character means you’ll be able to understand what it’s doing in a sentence

Are there others that I’m missing?

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4 Responses to “Common pitfalls for beginning Chinese learners”


  1. 1 Syz May 27, 2010 at 8:55 am

    “words are words” — want to expand on that? I have some idea what you might mean, but not entirely sure… apologies if you’ve got a post on that already

    A possible addition (although arguably a more advanced topic) is “assuming social norms are similar and just learning the equivalent phrases” — or some title like that. I’m thinking of the many places where the US speech act is entirely different from the Chinese. For example, the Mandarin beginner can learn how to say “I’m sorry” but then tends to overuse it by a factor of 10 and come across as kind of weird.

    I know this applies to other cultures too, but the speech act differences between, say, the US and China I think are much more numerous and stark than, say, Latvia vs the US.

  2. 2 Katie Tang May 27, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Yeah, working on that expansion post. I should start out with the grammar ones–the pronunciation, it turns out, is a much bigger task to take on than I had imagined it to be.

    Your speech act idea is a good one–I think beginners should be made aware of the differences, at least with basic phrases, even though they aren’t likely to really sink in completely until they speak much better Chinese. Another example–I still feel like I don’t really know when it’s appropriate to say 谢谢, and I had to explain recently to some Chinese people that we’re all taught that the appropriate response to 谢谢 is 不客气. This surprised them. But, so far as I recall, my beginning Chinese teacher didn’t touch on either of these issues when we learned how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’.

  3. 3 Syz May 27, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    谢谢——不客气 is a great example too. I’m sure I was taught that it was equivalent to English thank-you/you’re welcome at some point, it sounds familiar. You’re right of course: it doesn’t work quite the same. For a long time I kept meaning to come up with a whole list of these, but maybe you can just keep doing it as you blog!


  1. 1 Beware of Chinese grammar « The (y)east also rises Trackback on June 23, 2010 at 1:03 pm

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