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Say It Right Series

How hard is Chinese?

Posted by kencarroll May 26, 2007 in the Group General Discussion.

Here's a very well presented blog post on learning Chinese.

See, below for his overview of learning Chinese grammar:

Grammar: 3 (pretty easy)

Pros:

  1. Word order is often the same between Chinese and English
  2. Pronouns. No distionction between he/she/it. And no distinction between cases (he, she, her, it, its). tā 他= he, him, she, her, it. To make the possessive form add the “de 的” particle (tā de 他的).
  3. No inflected cases of any kind (like in German or Slavic languages)
  4. No plural nouns. “Apple” and “apples” are both are translated píngguǒ 苹果. The only exception is the plural suffix “men” for pronouns (wǒ 我= I, wǒmen 我们= us; tā 他/她/它= he/she/it, tāmen 他们= them). But as you see, even that doesn’t change depending on usage.
  5. No verb tenses to speak of. Do, does, did, doing, done are all translated as zuò. Tense is shown by time markers (”yesterday I do”) or tricky little particles (”I am going to go now” = wǒ zǒu le 我走了(I go + particle to show change in states or situation).
  6. No articles. “A book,” “the book,” the Chinese don’t care. Just say “book” (shū 书).

Cons:

  1. Measure words. Nothing could be perfect. Even though there’s no plural or articles, they had to add those pesky little measure words that basically serve no linguistic purpose. There is no way to say “One book” in Chinese without saying the correct measure word (běn 本). So, really what you’re saying in Chinese is “One bound-thing book” (yì běn shū 一本书). Or for table, “One flat-surfaced-thing table” (yì zhāng zhuōzi 一张桌子). My Chinese friends avidly condone measure words as a way of categorizing and organizing the world and telling you the shape of the thing you’re going to be talking about. I reply with, “There’s no reason for me to know the shape of the thing you’re about to say because you’re about to say the name of the thing itself which will be infinitely more useful for my imagining its shape.” I then hear crickets chirping for a few seconds and we change subjects. My theory as to the practical use for measure words has to do with the myriad homonyms in Chinese, but that’s another post.
  2. Adjectival phrases. Not all the word order is the same. The biggest difference, in my experience, is saying things like, “The person reading a book” in Chinese needs to be said, “The reading book person” (kàn shū de rén 看书的人).
    Adverbs of place. Similar to the adjectival phrases, “Behind the shop” needs to be said “At the shop behind place” (zài shāngdiàn hòumian 在商店后门).
  3. Tricky little particles. It’s a real trick to master when to throw in a “ba 吧” or a “ne 呢” or a “de 的” or a “le 了.” But if I’m not sure I just pick my favorite and at least other foreigners think I know what I’m saying.
  4. Word order very important. To pay the piper for all the perks of not having any cases or tenses, the Chinese depend very much on word order to convey meaning. Although it’s not as important in conversational Chinese as the textbooks would have us believe, throwing two words in the wrong order can absolutely stump most of them. I’ll try to think of a real-life example soon (it seems like it’s happened so often, yet they all escape me).

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