Chinese grammar books, come with amnesia?

Many students have a thirst for learning Chinese grammar. They often grab a grammar book, which normally contains dozens of grammatical points, and, starting with the first point, they work their way through the entire book. 

They read the explanation of one grammar point. After understanding it and also the sample sentences, they start doing the exercises, all written exercises, in which this particular grammar point is used repeatedly. The answer sheets are normally at the end of the book. Some students will check the answer sheets, while some don’t. Occasionally they would make some mistakes, but most of the time, they can get everything right. 

However, some time later, when they are participating in a conversation in Chinese, or writing an essay in Chinese, it seems that they always forget to use some of the appropriate grammar points which they have studied. It looks like that they have forgot everything rather quickly. Although all the grammar books and the exercises seem very useful at the time when students are working on them, these books seem to have an inherent quality of amnesia. 

Has this ever happened to you? If your answer is “yes”, don’t blame yourself for being forgetful.

Three problems of Chinese grammar books

While there is nothing wrong to explain the grammars as clearly as possible, the weakness is in the exercises, which are always included in the grammar books described as above. I have summarised three problems. 

The first one is that, when working on all the exercises, students already know which particular grammatical point they are going to use. It’s like that the author of the book is giving them a big hint.

The second one is that all the exercises are formulated and tailored to fit in the framework of all the sample sentences. When students are doing these exercises, they already have some ideas of what correct answers look like. Another big hint from the author.

The third one is that only written exercises are provided. Other body parts, such as the ears or the mouth, do not get any stimulation. 

Therefore, we have repeated exercises in a single form, which does not stimulate the brain very much. No wonder students forget them. 

The best use of Chinese grammar books

Having pointed out their problems, we should also talk about their usefulness.

Having a very good grammar book as a reference book is a very good idea. All teachers and learners of Chinese should have at least one book, and flip through it from time to time. If that is done, people would know that “了 le” does not indicate past tense in Chinese, and 的 is not possessive. And they don’t need to look through discussion forums or facebook postings to get some half baked answers.

The next best use for Chinese grammar books is for test preparation. In a written test, the multiple choice questions and fill in the blank questions are basically testing two things, vocabulary and grammar. This is where vocabulary books and grammar books work the best. Students get a crash course, memorising pages and pages of new words and grammars while doing many mock tests, and they can improve their test score quite a bit, provided that we all know deep down in our heart that students are going to forget everything quickly after the test is over. 

The best way to improve Chinese speaking and writing quality

The reason that students want to study grammar books is that they want to speak good Chinese or write Chinese well. They want to have their Chinese language error free, and have their language well structured. Unfortunately, grammar books, as analysed above, do not speed things up in these aspect, neither do they guarantee students that they won’t make mistakes any more.

The truth is actually very simple. If you want to speak good Chinese, you should speak more. If you want to write Chinese well, you should write more. These exercises are complicated process which brings out amazing brain activities and is the only way for students to improve their Chinese proficiency. Mistakes are sure to happen. Our concern is how to deal with mistakes when they occur.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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