It is a mistake to learn Chinese using English grammatical concepts

Sometimes, some famous scholars made a wrong conclusion, proposed a wrong theory, or advocated a wrong method, which unfortunately would have had a long lasting negative impact on the rest of the world for decades or centuries. We believed the heavy object fell faster, heroine cured cough, canals existed in Mars, and Ma Jianzhong (马建忠 1845-1900) worked out Chinese grammar by using Latin grammatical concepts. All right, the last one has not been overturned yet. But it should be.

For people who did not know,  Ma Jianzhong was the first Chinese scholar who, in 1898, published a Chinese grammar book, 《马氏文通》, which systematically analysed Classical Chinese based on Latin grammar. He classified words into nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and so on. He dissected Chinese sentence using concepts such as subject, predicate, object, and etc. Most subsequent modern Chinese grammar books were written based on the framework Ma Jianzhong created. 

It is this version of Chinese grammar that is taught to Chinese students in China. What most Chinese students did not know is its Latin origin. Nevertheless, students are very familiar with the concepts of nouns, adjectives, subject, and so on, which also happen to be the grammatical concepts of English. Interestingly enough, both Chinese and English use the same grammatical concepts, even though they are two entirely different languages. 

Some people in China have eventually become Chinese teachers teaching non-Chinese speakers Chinese. After going through years of training in the Chinese education system, almost all of the teachers are good at both Chinese grammar and English grammar. Hardly anyone doubted why the two languages share a set of similar grammatical descriptions. Moreover, most Chinese teachers believe that, since Chinese grammar and English grammar are so similar, their English-speaking students will understand Chinese grammar instantly. However, more often than not, Chinese grammar becomes the most difficult thorny issue which has confused so many students.

English grammar vs Chinese grammar

Like Chinese grammar, English grammar was also superimposed. According to A Brief History of English by Paul Roberts, it was only in the eighteenth century that English grammar was worked out by superimposing Latin grammatical descriptions. The difference is that English grammar seems to work very well. 

With a set of English grammar rules, English teachers can easily talk about English language and describe its various elements, such as tenses, articles, clauses. And all the grammatical rules serve as the guidelines for both teachers and students to know what is wrong and how to correct it. 

However, for many non-Chinese speakers who are learning Chinese, especially those who have a good grasp of English grammar, when they try to grasp Chinese in the same way as they did English, they often feel perplexed because Chinese is way too flexible.

Four biggest issues of Chinese grammar

The first issue is tense. Chinese words do not indicate tense. Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian (高行建) put it really well. He said “现实、回忆与想像,在汉语中都呈现为超越语法观念的永恒的现时性”. However, students always ask their teachers how to express the future tense and the past tense in Chinese. Trying to fit into the model, many Chinese teachers hastily answer that “use 要 (or 会 or 将) to indicate the future, and use 了 for the past”. This is not entirely wrong, but it is certainly very bad teaching. (Attention! “了 le” does not indicate past tense.)

The second issue is word order. Chinese words can be re-arranged differently and still express the same meaning. For instance the sentence structure “Subject + Verb + Object”, it works well in Chinese, but it doesn’t hurt to re-arrange the elements a little sometimes, such as both “我没吃早饭” and “我早饭没吃” are correct. 

The third one is that Chinese language does not have certain fixed structures which exist in English, such as the passive voice. When we teach students the 被字句 as in “弟弟被打了”, we need also tell them that they don’t have to use “被” all the time, such as in this sentence “信写完了”. 

The fourth one is that it is hard to classify a Chinese word without its proper context. In Chinese, a word can easily be a verb in one sentence, but a noun, or an adjective in another. For example “黄” in the following sentences: “叶子黄了” (verb), “我喜欢黄色” (noun), “树上开着黄花” (adjective). It also has other extended meanings, such as in “生意黄了”.

Approaches to teaching and learning Chinese grammar

We desperately need some hardworking Chinese scholars to work out Chinese grammar in its own right. Until that happens, there are three ways for students to handle the current version of Chinese grammar. 

#1 - Ignore Chinese grammar. It is not a bad advice if students feel that the Chinese grammar they are learning is not helping them. It could be that there are too many trivial points, or there are too many exceptions. 

#2 - Students summarise Chinese grammatical rules by themselves. They can achieve this by focusing on understanding Chinese in its own context and how Chinese words produce meanings. 

#3 - A compromised approach with very limited grammatical descriptions. This is the approach I take in my Chinese textbooks and my Chinese lessons, which primarily present key sentence structures. It also helps to tell students from time to time that Chinese is very flexible. Moreover, NEVER classify words. 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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