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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 would have had a long lasting negative impact on the rest of the world for decades or centuries. For instance, we had believed that 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. 

Well, the last one has not been overturned yet. But it should be.

The beginning of modern Chinese grammar

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 modern day China. Coincidentally, all students must study English, and they find English uses the same grammatical concepts. The only difference is the actual way of expressing the terms. In Chinese, they learn “名词”, “动词” and “副词”. In English, they learn “noun”, “verb”, and “adverb”. 

That makes learning grammar pretty easy. One set of rules is applicable for two languages. What most Chinese students did not know is that the real origin of this set of grammatical rules is actually Latin.  

Nevertheless, students are very familiar with these grammatical terms.

Some people educated in this way eventually become Chinese teachers, teaching Chinese as a second language. After years of training on grammar, all of them are quite good at explaining Chinese grammar using these grammatical terms, which are assumed to be understandable by people who speak English. Indeed, they think they are explaining Chinese grammar using English grammatical concepts. 

However, Chinese grammar is often the most difficult part and so many students get so confused. 

For students who are learning Chinese, many did not learn English the way their Chinese teachers did. So many students do not understand all the grammatical terms their teachers use, such as “predicate” or “adverbial”.

For those who have a good training of English grammar, they often find it is difficult to grasp Chinese in the same way as they did with English, because Chinese is way too flexible.

Four biggest issues of Chinese grammar

#1 Tenses 

Chinese words do not indicate tenses. 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”. 

It is always the present time. 

However, students of other languages always ask their teachers how to express the future tense or the past tense in Chinese. Trying to fit into the model, many Chinese teachers hastily answer that “use (or or ) to indicate the future, and use for the past”. This is really bad teaching. (Learn more here: 了 (le) does not indicate past tense in Chinese)

#2 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. 

#3 Fixed structure

Chinese language does not have certain fixed structures which exist in English, such as the passive voice. 

For example, 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 “” all the time, such as in this sentence “信写完了”. 

#4 Word classification 

Unlike English, it is hard to classify a Chinese word. In Chinese, a word can easily be a verb in one sentence, but a noun, or an adjective in another. 

For example “” in the following sentences: “叶子黄了” (verb), “政府扫黄” (noun), “树上开着黄花” (adjective). It also has other extended meanings, such as in “生意黄了”, “炎黄子孙”, “他姓黄”.

Approaches to teaching and learning Chinese grammar

We 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 terms. This is the approach I take. The drawback is that I need to remind students that Chinese is very flexible, and that constantly bugs me.