Written by:
May 28, 2020

Common Mistakes Keeping You from Improving Your Chinese Skills

Chinese is one of the most popular languages to learn right now. There are a few socio-economic reasons for that, including the growing demand for specialists from different fields, who can fluently speak this language. 

However, while it is one of the in-demand foreign languages to learn, Chinese is also one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn due to many reasons, starting from Chinese characters, an overwhelming amount of homonyms, etc. 

Apart from struggling with the overall difficulty of Chinese, the language learners complicate this process by making a few mistakes that have a negative impact on their success. 

What are these mistakes?

Let’s take a look. 

Common mistakes made by language learners

1. Not setting a goal and a study plan

No matter, how big your desire and ambition to learn Chinese are, a goal without a plan is just a goal. So, before you jump into the process, structure it first. 

What do you need to create an efficient foreign language study plan?

There are three steps you need to include in your language learning routine:

  • Create an outline of your learning goals. Given a realistic time frame, what would you like to achieve, and which Chinese language skills would you like to acquire or improve? Here, it is important to be real with yourself and take into account the external factors, such as family or job responsibilities, and outline your language goals according to these factors. 
  • Get access to the necessary resources and tools. According to the goals that you’ve outlined, you need to get access to the necessary resources to help you achieve these goals.
  • Outline a practice plan. The best way to get the most out of the language learning resource is to use them in combination. For instance, you can combine your Chinese learning lessons at a foreign languages school with a Chinese learning app. The trick is to do it consistently and alternate them according to the skill development plan of each lesson. 

The most important and the hardest thing to execute is to distribute the energy to learn the language consistently. In the beginning, you might be tempted to go through as many lessons as possible, but then you won’t have the energy to continue. 

The trick is not to overwhelm your brain with too much information, especially when it comes to hard languages like Chinese. 

Make sure that you put those bits of new information to practice every time you have a chance, but remember, that the more information you get, the more you’ll have to practice. 

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2. Only Focusing on Pinyin

Loosely translated, Pinyin means ‘spell sounds’, and it is the Romanization of the Chinese characters, and it historically served a purpose to help explain the Chinese language to Western learners. 

Pinyin plays a crucial role in the process of learning Chinese. Language learners use Pinyin for transcribing Chinese sounds, and it’s one of the foundations of learning Chinese phonetics. 

Why can’t you rely only on Pinyin?

It might be tempting to focus only on Pinyin when learning Chinese, but Pinyin is only a system that helps support the process of learning how to pronounce Chinese words and learn Chinese characters, but it doesn’t substitute them. 

Moreover, Pinyin is very helpful when it comes to speaking Chinese, and not helpful at all when it comes to reading texts in Chinese. Pinyin is simply a pronunciation reference to help you speak Chinese, but learning Chinese characters is still a must if you want to read or write in traditional Mandarin Chinese. 

3. Tones

Mispronouncing tones is one of the most common mistakes that learners make while studying Chinese. Also, most learners underestimate the importance of tones in the Chinese language. 

How important are the Chinese tones?

Chinese tones have a direct effect on the meaning of a word. For instance, the syllable base ‘ma’, pronounced in a high-level tone (mā) means ‘mother’. However, if you take the same base and pronounce it in a low falling-rising tone (mǎ) the meaning changes to ‘horse’

Using a word in a certain context can help a Chinese person decipher what you’re saying, but relying on it too much shows a not very respectful approach to the language and its speakers. 

So, make learning tones your priority from the beginning. 

Common mistakes made by Chinese language learners

4. Over-using 和

It is natural for a learner to transfer their speaking habits from their native to a foreign language they are studying. “This phenomenon is called a negative transfer or interference, and can impact pronunciation, word order, etc,” says Claire Johnson, a linguist at All Top Reviews

For an English speaking person, one of these common habits is over-using 和, the Chinese equivalent of ‘and’.

Why is it important to not overuse 和?

Chinese words are rich in meaning. The same with 和, which can mean ‘sum’, ‘together’, ‘draw’, etc. It can be an adjective, a noun, and even a verb, so you need to be careful about how many times you use it in a sentence. This word also cannot be used to connect two verbs in a sentence. 

Besides, the Chinese don’t use as much 和 as the English use ‘and’ in a sentence. So, if you want to speak Chinese more naturally, you shouldn’t overuse 和. 

5. 是 + adj

In English, it is very common to combine the verb to be with an adjective to describe objects around us. This is also one of the basic constructions that ESL students learn in English. 

But, as with the use of ‘and’, this construction is one of the examples of negative transfers, when it comes to learning Chinese. And the majority of questions from English-speaking students in China on academic websites for college writing are regarding this construction, as it is often used in academic writing. 

What does the construction ‘to be + adjective’ looks like in Chinese?

To create a construction with the same purpose in Chinese, learners need to use the word 是, which translates as ‘very’, but when put between a noun and an adjective, it loses its initial meaning, acts as a linking verb between the noun and the adjective, and normally is not translated. 

So, when learning Chinese, keep in mind, that this construction, which is very common in English, looks different in Chinese. 

6. Word order of adverbials

Lastly, it is important to talk about the word order in the Chinese language. 

Chinese word order is very similar to English, which may be either a blessing or a curse to those who are learning Chinese. 

What differs the word order in Chinese from English?

While the main sentence parts – a subject, a predicate (verb), and an object – are placed in the same way as in English, adverbials in a Chinese sentence are placed differently. 

In English, adverbials are placed at the end of a sentence, but in Chinese, their place is commonly before the verb. 

This mistake, which is also an example of a negative transfer, can mess up the meaning of the sentence, so keep it in mind when writing in or speaking Chinese. 

Over to You

Learning a foreign language, especially as complicated as Chinese, can be quite overwhelming. 

But if you take it one step at a time and dedicate enough time to practice your skills, it won’t seem as daunting. 

Keep in mind that Pinyin only serves as an aid for you to learn Chinese pronunciation, tones are necessary to differentiate the meanings of the words, and try to avoid negative transfers from your native language to make sure that your Chinese sounds and looks more natural. 

It takes time to make these mistakes go away, so make sure that you are aware of them since the beginning of your Chinese practice. Then, it will be easier for you to use this language correctly in the future. 

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About the author: Jessica Fender is an educational writer and a blogger. You can find her articles on Dumb Little Man, Topessaywriting, and ProLiteracy blog. Jessica is fond of new technologies and their implementation to make learning easy and fun.

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