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Learning Chinese is also to learn how to deal with mistakes

One perpetual fact about learning Chinese, teaching Chinese or using Chinese is that we all make mistakes. Students, Chinese teachers, even those famous Chinese writers who are the masters of the Chinese language, everyone makes mistakes. Many of us feel bad when we have made a mistake. But that should not be the end of a story. The next step should be that we learn how to deal with our mistakes. 

It is especially so for students who are learning Mandarin Chinese. To make progress means they must over come many mistakes. Making mistakes are definitely part of the natural process of Chinese language acquisition. 

There are some common mistakes nearly all students make when they are taking lower level Chinese courses. Higher level students often make a different kind of mistakes. Many mistakes require a slow and on going process to be gradually eliminated.

Pinyin initials, finals and tones

When first starting their Mandarin lessons, many students can not get three initials “j, q, x” right. And for finals, it is confusing that “i, u” sounds so differently in different places. And many students could not hear the difference of the four tones. 

Students make these mistakes because they do not have these sounds in their own languages. The initial reaction to these strange sounds is often “what?”, and gradually changes into “oh, I get it.” 

Trying to get the pronunciation right at lesson one proves to be impossible. And it is absolutely useless and a waste of time trying to do so. Moreover, we must remember learning Mandarin pronunciation is a different thing from learning pinyin. Pinyin is only a temporary bridge for students to get to clear pronunciations. Read more here: The gulf between pinyin and Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.

In order to improve pronunciations, students need a series of small and incremental pronunciation drills, which will gradually help them speak clear Mandarin.

Chinese sentence structures

Chinese sentence structures are often different from other languages. Therefore, many structural mistakes students make are due to the influence of their own languages. 

One common one is where to put the time phrase in the sentence. In English, it is correct to say “I eat breakfast at 7AM”, following a structure of “sub + v. + obj + time”. But this structure does not work in Chinese. The time phrase is required to be put before the verb (a structure focused in Mandarin Express Intro Level A). 

Other common structural mistakes in learning Chinese include “the duration supplement”, such as “I have played tennis for ten years” (a structure focused in Mandarin Express Intro Level B), and “the relative clause” structure, such as “I give him a bag which I bought last week” (a structure focused in Mandarin Express Basic Level A).

These structural differences can be explained clearly with many examples. However, even though students totally understand the difference between Chinese and their own languages, when they speak Mandarin, they are still prone to make these structural mistakes. It should not come as a surprise though. They have spoken their own languages for many years before they start learning Chinese. 

Lots of interactive practices and occasional reminders help students get them right.

Translation errors

This is a category of mistakes when students try to translate word for word from their own languages to Chinese. 

For example, to express “he is well”, many students, when without going through diligent sentence pattern training, would say “他是好”, even though they can get “I am well” right.

Translating word for word from other languages to Chinese is always a bad idea. The above example is a common mistake, which is hard for students to notice, because the Chinese version seems right as it tallies well with the English version. Other mistakes include trying to translate some untranslatable words, such as “for” in “I have studied Chinese for two years”, and non-existent Chinese words, such as “the”.

Google Translate is pretty amazing and works rather well in many occasions. But it is not reliable. Many high school students frequently use Google Translate when they are writing their Chinese homework. And their teachers can always tell. 

The best way to deal with these mistakes is simple: don’t do it! 

Read more about translating from English to Chinese in this article: Are you speaking Englinese? When Chinese language is influenced by English language

Higher level mistakes

When students get to a higher level of Chinese study, such as Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level A, Pre-Intermediate Level B and above, they make fewer structural mistakes. Most problems are in the choice of words in connections with the tone of the voice.

There are so many words to express the same idea. In a lower level, “看” is the only word used for “to look, to read, to watch”, but in a higher level, there are choices of “看, 瞧, 瞟, 读, 瞅”, all with a similar meaning. The aim is to use the best Chinese words, not just any word with the same idea. 

To achieve this task, students need to build an active word bank, where they can deposit and withdraw a word at ease. A word goes into this word bank to enhance a category of words with a similar meaning, not to replace them. In doing so, students will have many words to choose from, so that they do not use the same word for all circumstances. 

Lots of practices will help, providing opportunities for students to consciously activate their word bank. Gradually, they can fine tone their abilities in picking up the best one.


The saying “learn from your mistakes” does not work well in learning Chinese. The reason is that, due to different factors, many mistakes are repeated mistakes and are predictable. Many students know immediately when they made one and can correct themselves right away. 

Therefore, the focus is really on how to “deal with mistakes and reduce the number of mistakes in learning Chinese”, which can be achieved through targeted exercises and time.