The #1 Chinese myth

Every time I mention how I struggle with Chinese grammar, people inevitably say something like:

Isn’t Chinese grammar similar to English?

Here’s my answer:

No, not really.

Hey, since you know a whole bunch of Kanji from Japanese, and you speak English, learning Chinese should be a snap, right?

No, not really.

To illustrate, here’s a sentence I ran into during some light reading.

你想把他带到什么地方去?- Where do you think you’re taking him?

If you assume that the grammar is similar to English and translate the words literally, you get something like this:

You think (direct object) him, take where go?

Wow, that doesn’t look like very good English, does it? I mean there’s a verb at the end and something similar the 「を」 particle! But it’s not like Japanese either, since the main verb isn’t “go” but “think”. It’s Chinese sentence structure, which so far I’ve managed to break down into the following rules.

Rules for Chinese sentence structure

  1. Order the words so that it “sounds” natural depending on what words you’re using.

In fact, I’ve given up in trying to break things down logically. My current method of learning essentially boils down to behavioral training and osmosis. It works but it’s not something you can really teach or explain. “Hey, just go with it” doesn’t sound very good. 🙂

19 thoughts on “The #1 Chinese myth

  1. Your example is particularly difficult, because you chose to use the ‘ba’-particle, which is the focus of many syntactic analyses, but there is a simpler way of saying what you wanted to say without using it.


    With such a sentence, the gloss back into English is much more palatable:

    You want bring him to where?

    In this case, it’s almost exactly the same as English, only without the wh-movement in the formation of the question.

    P.S. The use of 去 at the end of a sentence is a feature unique to Mandarin. In other Chinese dialects (such as Cantonese), it is not permissible either.

  2. Grammar is so easy. Just blast a few thousand sentences in an SRS program and you’ll pick up the grammar naturally. I *wish* learning a language was just a matter of grammar. After learning Japanese, I decided to do a 30 day French challenge, thinking, “this is gonna be such a piece of cake after the tough grammar of Japanese”. I got a very rude awakening! IMHO grammar is the easiest part of learning any new language.

  3. Glowing Face Man: I’ve put myself through the supposed tortures of Japanese, the (in my opinion) more challenging hurdles of Korean, and even stuck my feet into the hot lava pool of Mongolian. I’m considering trying out a European language next since some of them are supposedly “easy.” So given that I thought Japanese was simple* and Korean was only a notch or two harder (though Mongolian is quite the challenge until you get used to the rules) I’m thinking that a European language such as Spanish or French is either going to be mind-melting or a cinch. But currently I don’t really have plans to study a new language.

    *Easy until a certain point; every language has its difficult points, even if they come later.

  4. I agree with Duncan that you picked a particularly hard sentence. I think every language has those. At the same time, you’re seriously overblowing the impossibility of predicting or teaching Chinese sentence structure.

    The sentence “你想把他带到什么地方去” has only two “not English-like” structures — using 把 to move 他 ahead of 带, and the “到…去” construction. As Duncan mentions, once you unwind those two features, you have an almost perfectly “English-like” sentence. It’s not easy, but it’s not incoherent or unteachable. The usage of those two features is pretty regular, and it’s not like every language doesn’t have strangeness (think about how sentences like “By that time, will he have had the opportunity to…” kick Chinese learners of English in the pants). You’re just not used to them yet.

    Given the subtlety and care that you handled Japanese grammar (which isn’t that hard, I admit, but certainly has its fair share of sticky points), I’m surprised that you just throw your hands up at Chinese grammar. If anything, it’s “just do what sounds right” nature makes it more like English 🙂

    • In that sense that it’s intractable, it’s suppose it’s true that both English and Chinese grammar are similar.

      To me it just feels like the whole use of Chinese characters as psedo-grammatical functions and the ambiguity of what constitutes a word makes the whole thing seem completely different from any other language and not like English at all.

      Here’s a simpler sentence: 他从中国回来了。 – He from China came back.

      Like you said, it just requires getting used how to structure your sentence depending on the kind of characters you’re using whether 从,的,得,比,跟,到,让,被,来,去,在,把,etc.

  5. Hi, I think a more accurate translation for your sentence is “Where do you want to take him to?”

    想 in this sense is more of “want” than “think”.

  6. Your Japanese grammar guide is great – it helps me much 🙂

    Besides, I would say that the common grammar and structures of Chinese and English is much more than those of English and Japanese.

    Your example is interesting. I prefer to translate it into (literally)
    – You want to have him taken where to?
    Notice that 去 = to, 把他带到 = have him taken to,
    It does make sense, isn’t it? 😛

  7. Many Indo-European languages are complicated by a ridiculous concept called gender. Also bogged down with too many redundant grammatical markings (for example, why do adjectives need to agree with their nouns in number, case, AND gender when they are located next to them already).

  8. @Bi: Many Asian languages are complicated by complex writing systems, tones, or numerous ways to end a sentence (ok this one I can only speak for Japanese and Korean). Every language and language family has its own set of difficulties.

  9. I think the reason for gender, number, case, etc is in Indo-European languages (also in Arabic, Swahili, Quechua, and many other families) is that humans need a system of noun classification/differentiation. In German, Nouns are also capitizalized like this, because Nouns are the “Things” of Speech and Writing, and Man likes to label Things.

    Gender is also useful for differentiating homonyms (such as in Spanish, el Papa = the Pope; la papa = the potato) as well as just similar sounding nouns (in Portuguse, o filho= the son; a filha= the daughter). The difference in the nouns of this second example is just in the final vowel sound (FILH-o and FILH-a) which is not accented, so the extra gender article at the beginning ( “o” , “a” ) gives extra clarification; in Japanese, 息子 and 娘 look very different on the page, but sound similar: “musu-ko” and “musume”. The pronunication difference is in the “probably” accented final syllable of “ko” and “me”, which is a stronger, clearer difference than the unaccented “o” and “a” in Portuguese. I say “probably” accented because there are no standard/defined accent or intonation rules in Japanese that I know of, other than just “the way people speak”.

    As far as nouns goes, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and other languages may be simpler but they can be vague as far as singular/plural goes. Also in Japanese there are many homonyms which is potentially and actually confusing. Some are clear by context and intonation (depending on the dialect), but I have observed many instances of confusion even between native Japanese speakers.

    Having said that, I do agree it is complex, and with so many rules and exceptions, students tends to forget that language is much more than grammar. If grammar is getting you down, I would suggest learning some music in a foreign language and just let the language move you.

  10. Which languages are hard or easy greatly depends on which languages you already know. If your first language is Spanish and your second is French, going for Portuguese third is going to be a lot easier than Hindi.

    Knowing Japanese does give you a bit of a leg up on (a percentage of) Chinese vocabulary, because of all the loan words you’ve already learned, and in my opinion vocabulary is always more work to pick up than the grammar, in any language. I spent a lot more work on vocabulary than on grammar when I studied Greek, even though most Greek words have multiple English cognates, and Greek grammar is *nothing* like English grammar. Still, there’s a *lot* of vocabulary, so even if you really only have to learn every third word (the other two thirds being easy cognates — skolios? gosh, I wonder what that adjective could mean, considering that scoliosis of the spine is when your backbone’s crooked…) it’s still a lot of work. Grammar seems daunting at first, but even if there’s quite a lot of it, you get it figured out in a couple of years and then realize you still have the vocabulary of a four-year-old.

    As for Chinese grammar being similar to English grammar, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of that. What I’ve mostly heard about Chinese is that it’s supposedly completely impossible for an English speaker to learn (though, magically, people seem to manage it somehow).

  11. Every language that is not a commonly studied European language is supposedly impossible for an English speaker. I was told that when I started Japanese, I was told that when I started Korean, I was told that when I started Mongolian, and now I’m told that just for trying to have 3 foreign languages under my belt. I’ll never hear the end of it.

  12. I think people keep repeating that myth about chinese grammar being like english just because it has the same general order of “SVO” most of the time. beyond that, chinese grammar is nothing like english grammar. I always found chinese grammar rather easy, though. It just seems to make sense to me. A lot of times, it felt like i just needed to say all the words required and they’d somehow magically fall into the right places.

    As for which languages are “easy” or “hard”, i think that for me this mostly depends on their vocab. German seems insanely easy to me because so many words are really similar to english, whereas in chinese i had to totally start from scratch because nothing is the same. Nowadays, i tend to use Anki to learn new vocab (making cards consisting of example sentences), and i get grammar from watching tons and tons of TV and listening-reading audiobooks with the text in front of me. After having watched two seasons of Star Trek: DS9 in german, i have to say that german word order is starting to feel “natural” now.

  13. Doviende –

    Re: German vocabulary, I agree that many basic words are similar to English (some body parts, animals, nature words, common daily use verbs, maybe), but I would not recommend a native English speaker to attempt German news or literature with only an arsenal of basic cognates. Even if you can train your mind to “guess” the correct cognate, and even if you can overcome the differences in word order, there are still many high-level vocabulary words that sound nothing like English.

    My understanding is that a lot of Basic (Informal?) Vocabulary is similar between English and German, but more Formal Vocabulary comes from Latin through French. With Japanese, a lot of the Formal, complex two-character kanji (with chinese readings) have very similar pronunciations in Chinese and Korean, but the Basic words for animals, nature, etc are homegrown, local, and unique.

  14. @qklilx: “numerous ways to end a sentence” is not a valid criticism since these endings normally add to the meaning of a sentence. What does gender agreement have to do with any meaning? “tones” is not a valid criticism since that’s just phonetics; it’s like criticizing consonant clusters which I didn’t do. “complex writing systems” criticism is only valid for Chinese and Japanese and a couple of obscure languages.

    @tommy, noun classes are fine. I agree. Animate versus inanimate, relatively unambiguous. But it is this Indo European inconsistent assignment of gender to nouns that’s annoying. And the many grammatical agreements that is entangled by them. Yes Japanese and Chinese can be vague about number; they are missing something. But in contrast, some Indo European languages have too much that don’t add much to meaning.

  15. > But it is this Indo European inconsistent assignment
    > of gender to nouns that’s annoying.

    Actually, that one annoys and/or confuses a lot of English speakers the first time they learn a foreign language. (English only has a little tiny bit of it. Most European languages have this feature to a much more pervasive extent.) After a while you get used to it, and the agreement can actually be very helpful for understanding the sentence, because it ties logically-related words together, even if they’re not adjacent, which allows for more expressive flexibility when it comes to word order.

  16. “Standard Chinese” is not a natural language, it is made for all the Chinese people to communicate with each other. Chinese has lots of dialects and people speak different dialects (such as Cantonese or Taiwanese) brings their own grammars into Mandarin. So the grammar in Standard Chinese is very confusing.

    If you want to learn real Mandarin rather than Standard Chinese, go to Beijing and live with native people!

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