The 3 Most Common Mistakes by Chinese Language Students

Chinese General mistake

I have been teaching Chinese for over 12 years. And I have seen my Chinese language-learning students every Chinese language mistake in the book! But I have noticed over the years that there are some mistakes almost everyone makes. Chances are you are making them, too, and can easily avoid these pitfalls if you just pay a little attention and change a few of your habits.

Mistake #1
You Use a Literal Word-by-Word Translation When You Speak in Chinese.

This is very common for beginning Mandarin Chinese language students. Or any person learning a new language. Instead of converting the sentence into Chinese, you simply translate each individual word. This puts the sentence into an English order. But what you need to do it is put it into a Chinese word order!

Example 1:

I’ll work on Saturday.
I’ll = 我将 (wǒ jiāng);
work = 工作 (gōngzuò);
on Saturday = 在周六 (zài zhōu liù).

English Word Order:

我将工作在周六 (Wǒ jiāng gōng zuò zài zhōu liù)。 ×

Chinese Word Order:

我将在周六工作 (Wǒ jiāng zài zhōu liù gōng zuò)。 √

Example 2:

I have a great interest in learning Chinese.
I = 我 (wǒ);
have a great interest in = 有很大的兴趣 (yǒu hěn dà de xìng qù);
learning Chinese = 学中文 (xué zhōngwén).

English Word Order:

我有很大的兴趣对学中文 (Wǒ yǒu hěn dà de xìngqù duì xué zhōngwén). ×

Chinese Word Order:

我对学中文有很大的兴趣 (Wǒ duì xué zhōngwén yǒu hěn dà de xìngqù)。 √
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Mistake #2
You Think Learning Characters Isn’t That Important.

Many learners feel Chinese characters are very difficult to learn and to write. Often my students quit learning writing and just focus on their pronunciation or pinyin. They feel learning to speak Chinese/ Chinese conversation is hard enough. Usually their main focus is being able to communicate with Chinese people. And this is of course important–but eventually these students get suck.
In China, almost all visible information is shown with Chinese characters, not Pinyin. If you are in China, even you can’t recognize a sign without knowing characters.
There’s no doubt that learning Chinese characters takes valuable time and energy. This means you have less time to study sentences, grammar and other skills that are more immediately useful. Yes, you initially progress faster at speaking when you don’t focus energy on writing. But once you get to an intermediate level, you can’t really begin to advance at that level. There are only about 400 possible syllables in Mandarin. If you multiply this by the four tones that Mandarin has then you get 1600 possible words. Linguists say that about 1200 are used. Once you want to understand more complex sentences, you need to know the characters to form the thoughts you want to express.

Mistake #3
You Use English Sounds to Remember Chinese Sounds.

This a very common problem in all of my classes–and at every level. Beginners, more intermediate students tend to equate Chinese sounds to English sounds. Don’t do it! In so many ways they are not the same. Once you get into this habit, it is difficult to go back. This is why having a Mandarin tutor, one-to-one, can be so helpful. They can call you out when you’re trying to do this and correct you in real time.
People tend to use this trick to make a shortcut in learning Mandarin. But it isn’t a shortcut! There is no shortcut with the Chinese language. You need to study the pronunciation in a systematic and scientific way, use discipline and consistency to learn, learn, learn.

Characters       Pinyin       English

海洋                hǎi yáng Hi Young
大海                 dà hǎi Dah Hi
The examples above are incorrect. Make sure you train yourself to learn Mandarin correctly!

HSK 3 quiz

1. Which of the following is in the correct Chinese word order?
A. 见你明天 (Jiàn nǐ míng tiān)!
B. 明天见你 (Míng tiān jiàn nǐ)!
C. 明天你见 (Míng tiān nǐ jiàn)!

— Written by Jennifer Zhu —

Jennifer Zhu is a professional Chinese teacher from eChineseLearning. She has many years of Chinese language teaching experience and received her B.A. and M.A. in “Teaching Chinese as a Second Language.”
HSK Test
General Chinese (Beginner Level)
General Chinese (Intermediate Level)

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