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!

3 Responses to “Beware of Chinese grammar”

  1. 1 Dave June 26, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    I used to hear “we wouldn’t say it like that” a lot when I was starting out learning Chinese, it can become quite frustrating.
    About Chinese and grammar, I think it really depends where you are looking, or to whom you are speaking too. Something that we often ask, or that often comes up during a Chinese class is the question: “is this 口語 or 書面 Chinese?”. There is a huge difference between writing something and using everyday Chinese, obviously the same is true for English too, but you can get away with ommiting much more in Chinese when speaking 口語.

  2. 2 Katie Tang July 2, 2010 at 11:00 am

    True enough about the difference between spoken and formal grammar. It’s true in any language, but it’s really strongly true in Chinese. I find it’s hard to ask questions about the spoken (and from a linguist’s perspective, real) grammar though because people think I need to learn the proper textbook way of speaking.

    Sorry to be slow in replying. I’ve been out of town recently. But thanks for the link!

  1. 1 Chinese Learning – Around the Web: 26th of June 2010 Trackback on June 26, 2010 at 4:04 pm

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