Archive for June, 2010

Beware of Chinese grammar

Some time ago, I started a series about common pitfalls for beginning Chinese learners.  I haven’t abandoned it.  I’m just a little slow.  I think point 2–assuming Chinese grammar is like English–doesn’t require a lot of elaboration.  This is a mistake made by beginning learners of any language.  This is the stage where learners wonder why they haven’t yet learned how to make plurals (Chinese doesn’t have them) or specify verb tenses (Chinese doesn’t have those either) or gender (nope, not obligatory anyway), or they insist on forcing these things into the language, since they are expressible.  Incidentally, I think this is the exact error that programs like Rosetta Stone make, but that’s another post for another time.

This quickly leads to the next problem–assuming Chinese grammar is like English, only easier.  You might even come across a more bizarre assumption: Chinese has no grammar.  Do yourself a favor and ignore all such statements.  Sure, if you’ve ever tried to learn a European language, then you rejoice in the fact that there’s no subject-verb agreement, no case marking, and no grammatical gender.   But there is grammar.  Basic word order is the same in Chinese and English–subject, then verb, then object.  Adjectives and possessives come before nouns.  So do relative clauses–that’s a bit different, but manageable.  Also, you’ve finally been convinced that you can leave out all the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph and still end up with a grammatical sentence, so you pretty much stop bothering to pay attention to them.   And since half the words, or pieces of words, in a sentence don’t really seem to be necessary anyway, you begin to think to yourself “Chinese is just like English, only I don’t have to worry about grammar, and I can leave half the words out of the sentence.  This is great!”  This causes you to quickly gain confidence and start practicing your newly acquired language skills.  Incidentally, that’s a good thing.  But beware–the day is coming when, unless you’re a language genius, you’ll realize that it’s not actually that simple.  You begin to realize, for example, that you consistently pick the wrong half of words to leave out when your teacher tells you things like “I can understand your meaning, but Chinese people wouldn’t say it that way” on a pretty much daily basis, and then she provides you with a correct sentence that is twice as long as the one you just uttered.  Your minimal language abilities are further confirmed when someone else you’ve been practicing on for a month suddenly tells you “You said that very clearly!” (你说得很清楚/nǐ shuō de hěn qīngchu) and you wonder to yourself what this says about everything else you’ve said to them.

And then there’s the grammar.  Basic Chinese grammar is quite similar to English.  But non-basic grammar, you begin to realize, bears much less resemblance (see, for example, my grammar notes series, or the aforementioned disappearing words phenomenon).   The more you see, the more you think–well, if you’ve taken syntax classes, anyway–that if Noam Chomsky had been born in China, minimalist syntax would never have come to be.   Things that ought to be units just don’t seem to behave like units.  Not only that, but all those grammatical things you decided you could just ignore … it turns out that people actually use them!  Sometimes there’s good reason to communicate some idea of how many nouns were involved in some action.  Sometimes there’s good reason to communicate some idea of whether that action is completed, recently started, in progress, or ongoing for a long time.  And guess what … Chinese lets you do it!  Or it would, anyway, if you hadn’t ignored that lesson since you assumed it was useless.

Again, there are no magic answers here–just a warning to keep an open mind and avoid being lulled into a false sense of language mastery.  The good news is, as I mentioned before, that most Chinese speakers seem to be remarkably willing to listen to their language being butchered, so don’t wait until you master it all to start practicing.  Butcher away!


Does Mandarin have dual pronouns?

Am I way off base in my analysis here, or does Chinese have dual pronouns that they just don’t ever teach you?  Since Mandarin has a perfectly good distinction between inclusive we (咱们/zánmen) and exclusive we (我们/wǒmen)–which I also have yet to come across in a textbook–I guess it shouldn’t surprise so much if other pronouns pop up too.

The words in question:

咱俩(zánliǎ) ‘we two, inclusive’–or more naturally, the two of us (you and me)

你俩(nǐliǎ) ‘you two’

他俩(tāliǎ) ‘they two’

So, are these words pronouns?  They are single words, as best as I can tell.  They sure look like pronouns to me.  But then why don’t they show up in any of the nice charts of Chinese pronouns I recall seeing?  I suppose it may be because their use isn’t obligatory–as far as I know, I can use 咱们/zánmen to refer to just you and me and no one else.  For that matter, I’ve used 我们/wǒmen plenty of times with this intended meaning, and no one seemed to be confused by it–maybe because not all dialects of Mandarin actually use 咱们/zánmen.  The other possibility is that they’re not actually pronouns–but if not, what are they?

For the record (these claims always get me in trouble, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway): there is no first person dual exclusive  pronoun–that is, there’s no such word as 我俩 (wǒliǎ).  If it did exist, it would mean something like the two of us (s/he and I, not you).  But it doesn’t exist.

Looking for suggestions …

Has anyone out there found a way to memorize vocabulary that isn’t completely tedious?  I don’t suppose so, but if you have, please let me know.  I’ve found myself drowning in vocabulary lately, and between that and a new textbook that’s a bit beyond my own opinion of my level (They’ve taken away my pinyin! They’ve taken away my English!), my inspiration for blogging seems to have dropped considerably.  I have a bunch of half written posts sitting around, but they all sound like they’re written by someone who’s spent far too long staring at flashcards, and I so far I have retained enough benevolence to avoid the need to extend that feeling to anyone else’s life.

I suppose the upside of all this memorization is that I actually find myself starting to have a chance of saying what I want to say or understanding what people say to me.  I still can’t have a real conversation of any length, but people don’t automatically give up on me and walk away.  I even had a proud moment where I contributed appropriately to a Chinese conversation among 6 or 7 people.  Ok, so my contribution was one word, but still, it answered the question they were discussing.  You have to start somewhere, right?

Grammar notes: 是…的 construction mysteries

I decided it was time to emerge from flashcard misery and keep this blog going.  So without further ado, a question from a reader that got buried in a comment section:

I’ve noticed that Taiwanese speakers (and maybe others) tack “de”s onto the ends of random sentences. I asked a Chinese friend what the rule for that was and she couldn’t say. So I thought “meh. I’ll just use it when it sounds right.” But according to her, my knowledge of a sentence sounding “right” is about as limited as the Royal Family’s gene pool. So is there a rule to this?

So I have a guess about what’s going on here.  It’s probably not a random sentence–at least, so far as I know, there’s not a particle that’s pronounced ‘de’, though my knowledge of such things is pretty limited.  I think what you’ll probably find is that somewhere in the sentence, there is also a ‘shì’ that appears to be random.  They go together.  However, while I’ve noticed that this is pretty common, I too am a bit puzzled about when to use it. Here’s an example of 是 … 的 (shì … de) in action:

周二 回来
shì zhōu’èr huílái de
I am Tuesday return de

What you wouldn’t say (but might think you should say if you’re anything like me in your Mandarin proficiency, or lack thereof) is:

周二 回来
zhōu’èr huílái le
I Tuesday return le

Now there might be one other important bit of data here–when I was discussing these two sentences with some friends, the context we were talking about was an answer to a question–When did you come back? So what I can’t tell you is whether, if you were just talking about your week, whether the second one might be acceptable.

I actually looked it up in a book (!) and am told that this construction is used for focus when talking about past events. In other words, I have to use the first sentence because I’m answering a question that specifically inquired about the time I came back, so I put the focus on the day. Apparently, if I understand the book correctly, I can put the focus on pretty much anything except the verb this way.  It’s sort of like saying in English “It’s Tuesday that I came back” or “It’s me who came back on Tuesday”, except it’s far more common in Chinese than English.  (Don’t even try to convince me that you’d say “It’s I who came back on Tuesday” in anything approaching a normal conversation.)

Those of you who speak better Chinese: Is this the answer to all mysteries? Or is there more to it than this?

And as long as we’re on the topic, here are a few other questions I have no answers to:

  1. My book also says the 是 (shì) can be omitted–which makes me a little bit skeptical. If the whole point of the 是 (shì) is to tell you, by its placement in the sentence, what’s being focused, then how can you get away with deleting it?  Or would this actually just happen in speech where you use some sort of stress to show where the focus is?
  2. Why the 的(de), anyway?  This 的 is normally used to show that something is modifying a noun–it follows possessives, relative clauses, and adjectives.  I fail to see the connection.  Is there one?



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