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5 Common Mistakes Chinese Learners Make

Having taught Chinese for a while, we’ve noticed a lot of common errors that English speakers make when learning Chinese. This is understandable, as Chinese has very different grammatical rules and structures than English.

We’ve rounded up our list of top 5 mistakes that Chinese learners make, as well as some tips on how to avoid them:

 1. Not using “的”

We’ve mentioned before that “的 (de)” is one of the most frequently used characters in Chinese. So why do so many English-speakers forget to use it?

Well, the main reason this mistake is so common is because there isn’t an equivalent of “的” in English. The closest equivalent is “’s” in the phrase, “the dog’s collar,” which shows that the collar belongs to the dog. In Chinese, we use “的 (de)” to show that the collar belongs to the dog – directly translated, this would be “狗

“的” can also attribute certain characteristics to a noun. For example, “a white dog” would be “白色狗.”

The three des (的,地,得) in Chinese grammar

2. Using “和” to connect sentences

One of the most common English words is the word “and,” which we use to connect nouns, verbs, phrases and sentences. “And” is often translated to “和()” in Chinese. However, in Chinese, you cannot use “和” to connect sentences – the result would sound very awkward!

For example: “I live in an apartment, and I have a dog.”
Incorrect translation: “我住在公寓里我有一只狗。”
Correct translation: “我住在公寓里,还有我有一只狗”

“还有(hái yǒu)” translates to “also.”

In the above example, you actually don’t even need to use a connector like “还有(hái yǒu)” at all. The sentence would be grammatically correct without it: “我住在公寓里,我有一只狗。”
You now might be wondering when we can use “和 (). ”   The answer is simple – we can use “和 () ” to connect nouns, verbs, and short non-sentence phrases.

For example: “I have two older brothers and a younger sister.”
Correct translation: “我有两个哥哥一个妹妹。”

When can I use “和?”

3. Using “是” with adjectives

You may know that the word for “is / are” in Chinese is “是 (shì.)” Another tricky aspect of adjectives in Chinese, though, is that we never use “是” to describe a noun. Instead, we usually use the word “很(hěn),” which means “very.”

For example: “He is tall.”
Incorrect translation: “他是高。”
Correct translation: “他很高。”

Using 很with Adjectives in Chinese

4. Using “吗” for all Yes/No questions

Asking a question in Chinese is one of the things many students stumble over. In Chinese, you typically put the character “吗(ma)” at the end of the sentence to function as a question marker. Using this word can transform almost any statement into a question.

However, sometimes a Yes/No question takes on the format of “是不是” or “有没有,” a format which we call positive-negative inversion. It is the equivalent of saying, “Are you or are you not…?” When using this format, you do not also use “吗,” as the positive-negative inversion already marks the sentence as a question.

For example: “Are you American?”
Incorrect translation: “你是不是美国人吗?”
Correct translation: “你是不是美国人?”
Correction translation (using “吗”): “你是美国人吗?”

5. Pronunciation errors

This is probably the most common mistake among all Chinese learners, and one of the hardest to correct.

By now, you probably know how important tones are in Chinese. Pronouncing something in a different tone can result in a completely different word or phrase, with an entirely different meaning!

For example: “老板(lǎo bǎn)” means “boss.” But “老伴(lǎo bàn)” means “spouse” or “husband/wife.” That could be an embarrassing mistake to make!

There is no specific rule or clear-cut way to achieve perfect pronunciation. The quickest way to get better is to practice with a native speaker, who can correct your tone when necessary. Other things you can do to improve pronunciation are listening to Chinese radio and watching Chinese TV, while trying to mimic the tone of the speakers you hear.

We hope these tips will help you avoid the 5 most common mistakes students make when learning Chinese! However, don’t be discouraged if you do make a mistake now and then. It’s an inevitable part of learning a new language!

Sara Lynn Hua

Sara Lynn Hua is a Chinese language researcher for TutorMing. She grew up in Beijing, before going to the University of Southern California (USC) to get her degree in Social Sciences and Psychology. She writes for TutorMing's blog. When she's not reading up on Chinese etymology, she enjoys crafting and painting.

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