What misconceptions do foreign language learners have about the Chinese language?

1. Chinese language is most difficult on its tones

Tones are most likely the first hurdle foreign learners come across in Chinese learning. Intuitively, it became the most complained element of the Chinese language.

People often think that the native speakers spend a lot of energy on dealing with tones when we speak. It’s not true.

We don’t think about tones when we speak. Tones are a natural and an integrated part of a character. They are not that strict, either. Different dialects use different sets of tones, and we can communicate just fine with each other.

2. The Chinese language doesn’t have grammar / grammar is very simple

The Chinese grammar is difficult to learn. Most people claim that only because they haven’t gotten to the part where it’s difficult. Remember, it’s a high context language.

I’ll give you an example. My wife installed a motion sensing lamp outside our apartment, and I went off to dump garbage. When I got back, the lamp lit up. She asked me if the lamp works, and how bright it was. Here’s the conversation in Chinese:

My wife: 灯亮吗?

Me: 亮。

My wife: 那它亮吗?

Me: 挺亮的。

“Is the lamp lit? (Does it work)” is asked exactly the same way as “is it bright?”.

But there was no misunderstanding, why? Because 1) we assume the first question was acknowledged and answered, and so the second question must be about something else; 2) I answered “it can be lit” in the first question, which doesn’t say anything about how bright it was. So she supplemented a second question, to disambiguate about the brightness. Had I answered “it is fairly bright” to the first question, she would not have asked the second time, because the lamp can be bright only when it already works.

Liàng【亮】can be both “if it is lit” or “how bright something is”. Which one it means in a sentence is entirely dependent on the context. In English there are “lit” and “bright” for that disambiguation.

(Context: when I went back home, for my wife who recently installed the lamp, there are two possible things she cares about: 1) Does the lamp work; 2) If it works, how bright it is. The way she asked was a way that can mean both. I assumed 1) answered. She asked the same question again, I knew she wanted to know the 2) too. I answered.)

It must sound finicky to the Chinese learners. But wait! You’ve got similar concepts, too. “The bank is on the other side of the bank” for example. It does happen in English sometimes, it’s just that these sort of context dependent scenarios are not just a rare occurrence in Chinese, but in fact are part of the language.

All Chinese grammar elements lead to context. Had I not told you the story of my wife installing lamps, it would have been difficult for you to deduce what happened and why she asked the same question twice and I answered differently, and still made sense to both of us. But if you are very familiar with the Chinese language, you would be able to make the deduction, and make out the possible scenario solely based on this conversation.

An example of how context works, when two people met, one asked: “你吃过饭了吗”, versus one asked “你吃上饭了吗”, and I happen to hear it. What’s the difference and what assumptions can I make?

你吃过饭了吗 is a simple greeting, the asker just wants to make conversation.

你吃上饭了吗 is a similar simple greeting. But I immediately know that these two people had met at least one time just before, and had asked the same question, and the answer from the other person was “No I haven’t.” All thanks to the “status change verb suffix” shàng【上】.

The correct understanding of this phenomenon should be: “the Chinese grammar is implicit”. And that makes learning it even more difficult than writing characters and learning tones.

3. Chinese language has no tense

The correct understanding should be “the Chinese verbs are not conjugatable”. They can’t be conjugated.

People often say “做了” is the past tense of “做”. But it’s inaccurate.

Le【了】used after a verb signals that the action is completed.

Guò【过】used after a verb signals that the action happened in the past.

Wait, you might say, aren’t these the same?

It’s best not to dwell on concepts of English when you learn Chinese (or any other languages for that matter). The Chinese does have tense in that by adding grammar components to a verb, the meaning of the verb changes, and that include tense.

“Complete” can happen in the future, for example: 等你交了钱我就发货 (After you pay, I will make the delivery.) When it’s not completed: 你在等什么?等你交钱。(What are you waiting for? For you to make the payment.)

Together it makes this:

你在等什么?What are you waiting for?

等你交钱。Waiting for you to pay.

我交过了。I have already made the payment.

Do something in the past.

Do something completed.

Do something in the past completed.

They are the examples of how tense work in Chinese. Same principle applies to the alleged future tense of Chinese “要/将/会+verb”, they are not exactly your English future tense, but simply mean “Someone want, someone will”. Yes it works similarly, but there are no verb conjugations involved.

4. Chinese characters are so difficult to learn because there are no patterns to remember

Make sure you start with radicals first. They are the components of a character. There are “phonetic radicals【声旁】” and “definition radicals【部首】”.

Together they make the majority of characters no matter how complex. You can guess its phonetics from the phonetic radicals, and you can guess its meaning from the definition radicals.

In other words, if you think to learn 10k characters you need to repeat the process 10k times, and there won’t be enough time in your life to learn them all, that would be wrong. In reality, learning just 3,000 can be more than enough to make do, and also making learning the rest of the characters progressively easier.

Albeit a lot of hard work, it is not “impossible”.

5. Chinese word for stalling sounds like nig*er

It is only true for northern accents. Besides, we have a tonne of other stalling words, varying by dialects. It’s more like a joke to be honest, you need to have a sense of humor to get it.

6. The Chinese people have to learn English first before they can program in languages such as Python, Java, C++, C#, etc.

It’s simply not true. In fact many Chinese programmers I know personally do not speak a word of English.

In fact the Chinese programmers are most enthusiastic about how to get a raise when they learn to speak good English. These are professionals with years if not decades of coding experience.

Programming languages have their own syntax and rules that even if you are native to English, would have to go through trainings to know how to use correctly.

For example, I know delegate means to “represent, act on behave of another” in English. But what does “delegate” mean in C#?

It means a special type that doesn’t have executable code blocks by itself, but is there to represent a collection of methods that uses the designated types as input and output as the delegate type. You can attach one or more methods if they fit the criteria, and call the delegate in your stack later when you want it.

So, just like a variable is a “placeholder” for data. A delegate is a “placeholder” for functions or methods. Why aren’t variables called “delegates”?

So the name doesn’t help you memorize what it does much. You still have to learn the programming language all the same.

7. The Chinese language requires a special keyboard to type their complex tens of thousands of characters

No, all we need is a standard QWERTY keyboard. There are special keyboards for Chinese characters, but they are rare to be seen nowadays.

Either use Pinyin or Zhuyin rules, and you can type all commonly used characters. Rare characters can be searched and typed out through a little bit more effort, but it can be done.

8. The Chinese language when spoken lacks emotion or attitude

The reason why people think it is because in English, the emotion or attitude is expressed via the tone of the sentence. In Chinese, tones serve another purpose, obviously. So how do the Chinese mean emotion or attitude?

Well, the truth is, there is a set of grammatical characters we call yǔ qì cí【语气词】that are specialized to dealing with the emotion or attitude of a sentence.

An angry Chinese sentence often does not sound angry in terms of tones. How could it, the tones are fixed in Chinese.

Yuqici provide a more subtle attitude control of the sentence, and they can also be used in consecution to be even more subtle.

The other beauty of yuqici is that you can show your subtle attitude when it was written:

Here is an example of my friend talking about Street Fighters V, the conversation goes like this:

My friend: My Zangief is so strong now.

Yesterday I fought a 1100 point Balrog and it was a good fight.

And then I got smurfed by a dalao.

Me: Be smug all you want


My friend: How am I being smug?

Me: Whatever ya.

My friend: So angry.

Not friendly at all.

The ya【呀】is a yuqici that means “dismissive” and therefore signaling a slight irritation and impatience.

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