Common Mistakes Beginner Chinese Learners Make – part 2
Those little devils! Tones are incredibly crucial to your ability to not just speak Chinese, but to speak Chinese well. As painstakingly cruel as it is, be disciplined in committing each character’s tone to memory. This is critically important in the beginning of your language learning (I promise you’ll thank me later). Avoid underestimating the value of tones as you accrue more vocabulary words in your Chinese arsenal. As far as pronunciation of Chinese goes, those trouble-making-tones are undoubtedly the most important thing to get right. Without them, you’ll throw any listener off.
In case you still think that “x” and “sh” and “ch” and “q” make identical sounds in Mandarin, think again. The deeper you dive into the language the more clearly you will be able to discern these relatively small differences in pronunciation. Listen closely to native Chinese speakers. Then listen to your classmates (or better yet a non-Chinese-learning student trying to replicate the sound). You’ll recognize more quickly the subtle differences in the phonation and articulation of Mandarin.
As a native English speaker, I find I often struggle with this, but imagine speakers of other languages often face similar challenges. The easiest example I can give comes in the form of a question: when using English to ask anything, speakers oftentimes raise their voice at the end, indicating the sentence is in fact a question and not a statement. Think about how you would say aloud “They went to the store?” versus “They went to the store. When using Chinese, you can’t simply change your tone of voice and automatically assume the listener knows you are asking a question. Be cognizant of utilizing the question-indicating characters at all times. Adding “ma?” “shì bù shì” or “le méi yǒu” are great key phrases to stick in your back pocket. In a similar vein…
The way you construct a sentence in your native language is NOT the way you construct a sentence in Mandarin Chinese (largely speaking). The most frequently cited example of these differences are exemplified in sentences that mention time. “I am going to the store tomorrow” in English translates as “Tomorrow I am going to the store.” Here is some examples. If you translated word-by-word, your Chinese sentence would come out wrong, and be difficult to understand for listeners.You are learning an entirely new set of grammar rules and requirements. Don’t try to fit Chinese into your native-language’s box. It is an entirely different shape, with entirely different concepts, and entirely different structures. Identify early on any attempts by your brain to apply your native language’s grammar rules to your foreign language studies, and then supress them.
You might look at this error and think “smh,” but it’s true: any learner of the Chinese language will tell you to study in China. Best to do it towards the beginning to better egg on your interest, confidence, and understanding of the language and accompanying culture. You cannot trade in the value of the experience of living in China for any number of tutorials, classes, or lectures in Mandarin taught in your home country. The difference is of course that in China, your classroom never ends – your new environment in its entirety is constantly alerting your senses, forcing your brain to work, and triggering your learning process. Make plans early on to tack a language course in China on your to-do list. Your language skills will benefit significantly (and you’ll have a ton of fun too!). That’s all for our comprehensive list of mistakes to avoid for beginner Chinese learners. What other pieces of advice would you add to help beginners start their language learning on the right foot?
Written by Megan Lee