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Tips for learning Chinese grammar

Chinese grammar, learning Chinese

What to Expect When Learning Chinese Grammar

"Chinese doesn't have grammar." OK, this is just silly. If there are no rules for how to string Chinese words together, then you could never be wrong, right? Although that sounds nice, it's just not possible.

"Chinese word order is just like English word order." While it's true that there are some basic similarities, and you can easily find examples like "I love you" that match word for word, it's not hard to disprove this. Even basic words like 也 (yě) will constantly trip you up if you don't use them the Chinese way.

You've also probably heard that Chinese grammar doesn't have verb conjugation, or plurals, or cases, and a bunch of other stuff that we language learners generally associate with "not fun." What does all this add up to? It means that for someone who speaks English, Chinese grammar is not going to stress you out too much. But still keep your eyes out for interesting features and patterns different from English. You will find them.

If you've got the vocabulary and a few basic patterns down, grammar is not going to be your biggest obstacle. If you can't find someone to talk to, then get reading as soon as possible.


Learn basic grammar patterns

Extend your knowledge with experimentation and input

Go back to grammar resources when you get confused or some grammatical issues just really starts bugging you

Let's look at each in detail.

Learn Basic Grammar Patterns

You can find these in any grammar book. It's stuff like:

要 + Verb = "Want to [Verb]"


Noun1 + 比 + Noun2 + Adj = "Noun1 is more [Adj] than Noun2"

Sure, if you dig, you can find all kinds of weird exceptions and advanced forms, but to delve into those right away is to waste the advantage provided by the gentle learning curve. Put another way, it's kind of hard to communicate in a language that requires verbs to be conjugated if you haven't learned to conjugate verbs at all. But here's this language that doesn't require conjugations and has all kinds of simple patterns. Why would you not want to just jump right in? Don't make it more complicated than it is!

If you're learning from textbooks or podcasts, they may or may not dwell on the finer points of grammar. As a learner, though, you can choose to take just what you need and get out there and start talking. "Pack light." You don't need to finish reading up on all the exceptions of each grammar point in order to have a conversation.

The point is to just take what you need and go use it.

Extend Your Knowledge with Experimentation and Input

Once you have your basic grammar patterns and vocabulary down, and you're out there practicing your Chinese, there are a few other things you can do to get the most out of the experience.

Focus on meaning when you speak. Use the grammar points that you think will get your point across. If they do, then great. That's a good sign. If, however, you're repeatedly using the same grammar point to express a certain idea, and no one seems to understand what the heck you're talking about, you might want to try another approach, and eventually revisit that stupid grammar point that didn't work for you.

Listen for recasting. Very often, native speakers will give you subtle corrections while conversing with you. Many learners are blissfully unaware of these, but if you tune into them, they can be an excellent way to improve your speaking.

Go out there and try new patterns. Start conversations specifically to use a new grammar pattern. This kind of experimentation might sound silly and not terribly conducive to real conversation, but the results can be surprising. The way native speakers respond to your shaky, early uses of new grammar patterns will reinforce the meaning and usage of those patterns like nothing else. And you will have awesome conversations.

When you don't understand, don't get hung up on it. A lot of times the grammar, though complex, isn't actually important to the topic at hand. The 把 (bǎ) construction is a perfect example of this. If you really want to learn it properly, there's a lot to take in. But you can also completely ignore it for quite a while and do just fine. If you're having real conversations, ignore the pesky grammar patterns until you can't!

Following these four pieces of advice will allow you to get more input sooner. This will help accelerate not only your acquisition of grammar, but also vocabulary, listening comprehension, and speaking proficiency. The thing about language acquisition, though, is that it is a largely unconscious process. So you won't necessarily FEEL the effects of the input, but they will be at work in your brain.

As for the conscious part of the learning process, it's crucial that you get out there and make contact with the real language. It will breathe life into the grammar explanations that you have already studied if you revisit them later. Furthermore, real communication will fuel your motivation to better express yourself and understand the precise meaning of what other people are saying to you. And let's face it… that's what grammar is for.

Go Back to Grammar Resources Later

when you're ready to learn a new grammar point, it will naturally come into focus. Little connector words that you didn't even hear before will suddenly start to stand out. Although you were once happy to just get the basic gist, your brain will start to hunger for a more precise understanding of the grammar point in question.

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