12 common errors of Chinese that English speaking students often make

English language has a huge influence on English speaking students when they are speaking or writing Chinese. That’s very understandable. They have been using English for decades, after all.

Below are twelve common errors these students tend to make, many times involuntarily. Most of these errors come from direct translations from English to Chinese.

Once these errors are pointed out, it’s easy to understand why students make these errors, but it takes time to be rid of them. That’s what we will talk about later in this article, the best strategy to avoid these, and other, errors. 

1. 我是忙。(wǒ shì máng.)

For a simple sentence with a descriptive word, such as “I am busy”, the error students often make is to use (shì) “to be” in the sentence, as shown in the example. 

The source for this error is to translate word by word from English to Chinese. To say it correctly in Chinese, for a neutral statement without anything being emphasised, use (hěn) instead:

我很忙。(wǒ hěn máng.)

To know more about (hěn), read The mistranslated Chinese character - 很 hěn

2. 他工作在一家银行。(tā gōngzuò zài yījiā yínháng.)

When a sentence is used to describe the fact that an activity takes place at a location, such as “He works in a bank”, the error students often make is to follow the English word order and put “ (zài) + location” at the end of the sentence, as shown in the example. 

The correct word order in Chinese is to put “ (zài) + location” in front of the activity:

他在一家银行工作。(tā zài yījiā yínháng gōngzuò.)

3. 我上课在学校下午四点。(wǒ shàngkè zài xuéxiào xiàwǔ sì diǎn.)

When both time and location are indicated to describe an activity, such as “I attend classes at school at 4PM”, the error students often make is to stick to English word order, as shown in the example. 

We mentioned that, in Chinese, “ (zài) + location” should be put in front of the activity. When there is a time element, it is placed in front of the “ (zài) + location”. Thus the word order is, “time + (zài) + location + activity”.

The correct sentence is:

我下午四点在学校上课。(wǒ xiàwǔ sì diǎn zài xuéxiào shàngkè.)

4. 今天比昨天一点冷。(jīntiān bǐ zuótiān yīdiǎn lěng.)

To compare two elements and show a degree of measurement, such as “Today is a bit colder than yesterday”, the error students often make is to use the degree measurement first, followed by the descriptive word, as shown in the example. 

This is also due to students’ habit of using English language structure. To correct the sentence, put the degree of measurement after the descriptive word:

今天比昨天冷一点。(jīntiān bǐ zuótiān lěng yīdiǎn.)

5. 报告被写完了。(bàogào bèi xiě wán le.)

In Chinese, (bèi) is a passive voice marker to construct passive sentences, such as  “The report is written”, as shown in the example. 

This example is in fact grammatically correct.

The problem of this sentence is not about how to use (bèi) to express passive voice. Rather, it is about whether or not to use (bèi) at all. 

In Chinese, passive voice is not as prevalent as in English. A passive sentence with a proper marker is not very common. What we are relying on is the context. When it’s clear that “the report” can not write itself, it must be written, the passive voice marker is not necessary. 

Therefore, to correct the sentence, simply drop the passive voice marker (bèi):

报告写完了。(bàogào xiě wán le.)

6. 先我喝咖啡,然后看书。(xiān wǒ hē kāfēi, ránhòu kànshū.)

然后… (xiān … ránhòu …) is a structure to describe activities in a sequence, such as “First I drink coffee, then read books”. The error students often make is to start the sentence with (xiān) before the subject, as shown in the example.

To correct the sentence, put (xiān) after the subject:

我先喝咖啡,然后看书。(wǒ xiān hē kāfēi, ránhòu kànshū.)

7. 我不知道如果他来。(wǒ bù zhīdào rúguǒ tā lái.)

“I don’t know if he comes” is a sentence about factual knowledge. The error often seen is to translate “if” literally into Chinese, as shown in the example. 

To express this kind of sentence in Chinese, the easiest structure to use is “A + not + A”. To correct this sentence, we need to drop 如果 (rúguǒ), and change the structure: 

我不知道他来不来。(wǒ bù zhīdào tā lái bu lái.)

8. 以前睡觉,我学习中文。(yǐqián shuìjiào, wǒ xuéxí zhōngwén.)

One of the key meanings of 以前 (yǐqián) is to express “before (something happens)”, such as “Before going to sleep, I study Chinese”. A common error is to use English word order to say this in Chinese, as shown in the example. 

This is one of the many scenarios that English and Chinese are reversed. In Chinese, to express the same meaning, 以前 (yǐqián) is placed after the activity, “…. 以前 (yǐqián)”. This whole section ended with 以前 (yǐqián) is a time indicator, and it should be put before the main activity of the sentence. 

Let’s make this sentence correct:

睡觉以前,我学习中文。(shuìjiào yǐqián, wǒ xuéxí zhōngwén.)

9. 我不想这个很重要。(wǒ bùxiǎng zhège hěn zhòngyào.)

“I don’t think this is important” is a common expression to tell people our opinions. The problem arises when English word order is used to speak Chinese, as shown in the example.

Chinese way of saying it seems more logical. It confirms the fact that “I think”, then followed by the conclusion of my thinking, “this is not important”. 

Thus we correct this sentence as following:

我想这个不重要。(wǒ xiǎng zhège bù chóng yào.)

10. 我喜欢中文上课。(wǒ xǐhuān zhōngwén shàngkè.)

In Chinese, there are many words which are compounded with a verb and an object, such as 上课 (shàngkè). A common error students make is to treat this compound as fixed, such as when to express “I like Chinese classes”, students end up a sentence shown as above. 

To correct the mistake, we need to recognise that the actual object is (kè), and modify it accordingly:

我喜欢上中文课。(wǒ xǐhuān shàng zhōngwén kè.)

11. 我喜欢都日本音乐。(wǒ xǐhuān dōu rìběn yīnyuè.)

(dōu) is translated into “all” in English. Students tend to use (dōu) whenever there is an “all” in the sentence, such as saying “I like all Japanese music”, and use (dōu) where the “all” is, as shown in the example. 

In Chinese, there are two basic words for “all”. One is (dōu) and the other is 所有的 (suǒyǒu de). (dōu) is used before actions or descriptive words, and 所有的 (suǒyǒu de) is used before nouns. 

Thus, we correct the sentence using the right “all”:

我喜欢所有的日本音乐。(wǒ xǐhuān suǒyǒu de rìběn yīnyuè.)

12. 我问她吃饭。(wǒ wèn tā chīfàn.)

(wèn) is translated into “ask” in English. However, in English, “ask” is a versatile word which has many different meanings. Each meaning is corresponding to a different Chinese word. The character (wèn) is only one of them, to express “to ask (a question)” or “to inquire”. In a simple sentence in English, such as “I ask her to have dinner”, using (wèn) will be wrong, as shown in the example. 

To correct the sentence, we must use the appropriate the Chinese word which best fits the context. In this case, it is “ to invite”, (qǐng):

我请她吃饭。(wǒ qǐng tā chīfàn.)

Strategies to avoid these errors

There is a word in Chinese, 知易行难 (zhī yì xíng nán), “It’s easy to know but hard to do”, which adequately describe students’ position in relation to these, and many other, errors.

In How to make the most of Chinese audio lessons, there is a learning pyramid, which consists of four tiers, “Understand”, “Re-enforce”, “Remember”, and “Apply”.

Learning starts from the bottom tier “Understand”, then goes to “Re-enforce”. After re-enforcement, knowledge gets to the third tier “Remember”. Only after these steps will students be able to use their knowledge with dexterity, “Apply”.

Reinforcement is definitely the key. For this reason, many grammar books claim to be just that. These books list tons of grammar points, followed by targeted drills, “reinforcement”. 

Many students like to grab a grammar book and go through it point by point. The problem is that, after working on the book, students feel that they won’t be able to use these grammar points effectively. It seems that, Chinese grammar books, come with amnesia.

In reality, simple mechanic drills and exercises, such as included in grammar books, do not help much. These books at the best fulfil the bottom tier of “Understand”. 

The best strategy to avoid errors and to speak and write Chinese well is actually how to practice, and how to reinforce. Such exercises must go beyond simple mechanic drills and exercises. 

Students are recommended to work on more rounded issues, or exercises with space to roam around, not just right or wrong questions, but with more substances to think about.

When there is enough space, students will be able to think more, to speak more and to write more. In this roundabout way, students will be rid of any common errors effectively.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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