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How to learn Chinese grammar?


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#1 share Olle Linge

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Posted 20 February 2014 - 06:51 PM

There are many different approaches to learning Chinese grammar, which makes it a particularly interesting subject to discuss. Also, since it's likely that there is no method that is optimal for everyone, diversity is good and increases the likelihood that students find the way that works best for them.

 

This makes grammar an ideal topic for discussion and for round-table articles. I was very pleased with how the previous discussion thread I started turned out and I'm glad Roddy is happy to try the same format again, now with a focus on grammar. I know grammar gets discussed here now and then, but I think it would be cool with a new look at the basic approach.

 

Just like last time, I will extract interesting passages and include in an article later (a few weeks from now). Still, don't feel limited by that, this is a discussion forum, I'm just saying that I think the answers last time contributed quite a lot to the final article and that I would like to do the same thing again.

 

How should we learn Chinese grammar?

 

(Just to be clear, when I say “we”, I mean people who are learning Chinese as a second/foreign language and who are already proficient in English.)

 

Even though the question is very short, it covers a number of topics apart from basic strategy/approach. For instance, is there any difference between learning grammar when learning Chinese compared with other languages? What should students who are studying on their own focus on? What resources are available for learning grammar? Is it important to focus on grammar when learning Chinese or should it be done implicitly?


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#2 share li3wei1

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Posted 20 February 2014 - 07:03 PM

is there any difference between learning grammar when learning Chinese compared with other languages?

 

I'll start with that one. I'd say in most other languages, there's a lot of memorising that you have to do up front even to produce basic sentences: verb declensions, genders, irregular verbs. That is not necessary in Chinese, but in Chinese, when you get to the advanced level, there are hundreds of structures and patterns that need to be memorised. So the memorisation load comes later in Chinese than in other languages, at least as far as grammar is concerned.


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#3 share Francis101

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Posted 20 February 2014 - 07:54 PM

I think when it comes to grammar the most important things for beginners is learning the patterns that will give you the most "mileage" early. That way you have patterns that allow you to express thought early on in starting Chinese.
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#4 share 欧博思

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Posted 21 February 2014 - 06:49 AM

Yip Po-Ching, Chinese Grammar Wiki, and extensive reading


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#5 share Adam_CLO

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Posted 21 February 2014 - 12:33 PM

I recommend that beginners don't focus on grammar in the beginning. Just work on vocabulary and get comfortable with the various sentence patterns first, before worrying about why they are constructed the way they are.

 

In my case, I learned "street Chinese" for the first few years. I used characters like 就 and 才 in my speech without knowing why they were there or what their purpose was, just because that's how I had "heard" it. It was only later, when I enrolled in formal classes that the grammar rules were explained to me. It made a lot more sense to me to see then because I had already observed all the use cases.

 

I see a lot of students suffer trying to memorize long grammar rules up front for words and characters they aren't familiar with and unlikely to use in the beginning. This is an easy way to get frustrated.


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#6 share roddy

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Posted 04 March 2014 - 06:25 PM

I think if at any point you're sitting down to "study grammar" then you're doing it wrong. If you're following some kind of progressive course (which I'd recommend, even if you're also getting tonnes of real exposure) that should introduce, explain and apply new structures at a reasonable pace. If you hit something that seems problematic, or you happen to hear something three times in a day and can't resist looking it up, fair enough, open the grammar book. But otherwise make it a part of all your other learning, not something you do separately. 

 

But each to their own. I've probably told this story before, but when I went back to the UK after my first year in China I signed up for an evening course in Chinese at the local university. One of the other students was an elderly professor of history who was, to be fair, awful at Chinese.

 

Chatting with him during the break one day I asked if he had any plans to go to China. No, he said, can't imagine ever doing that. Chinese family or friends? Oh no, not that I can think of. Research interest in China? No, no. So why Chinese, in that case? Oh, he said, leaning in to divulge the big secret... I just love the grammar. 


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#7 share anonymoose

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Posted 04 March 2014 - 11:18 PM

I don't know. I worked my way through Yip and Rimmington's Basic Grammar before I did anything else much as far as I remember.


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#8 share lakers4sho

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Posted 05 March 2014 - 02:57 AM

For each grammar point that I learn or revise, I write my own 例子 using the structure, not trying to make it as complicated, but actually trying to make it as simple as I can, just so that I can apply the structure correctly. I show the sentences to my teacher (this is important, make sure you ask someone who knows their grammar) and she can tell whether they are correct or not.

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#9 share Olle Linge

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Posted 11 March 2014 - 05:20 PM

Thanks everybody! I have now published the final article:

Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar

 

The debate doesn't end there, of course, but I do think it's a good starting point. Personally, I believe in a combination between deductive and inductive methods. Complete induction is very, very hard in some cases, but with a spoonful of deduction, induction becomes that much easier. Let's take 了 as an example. Without knowing anything about 了, it will be extremely hard for a native speaker of English to grasp how it's used. However, with two basic fundamental principles (i.e. 了1 completion/realisation and 了2 change of state/current relevant state), it becomes a lot easier. So, I don't think 了 should be learnt through a grammar book, but having at least a vague idea of what kind of clues you're looking for is extremely helpful. My two cents.


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#10 share lakers4sho

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Posted 12 March 2014 - 02:47 AM

A lot of Chinese grammar, especially 了, are context based, so in that sense, simply going over example sentences from a grammar book might be insufficient.

Taking the case of 了, grammatically, your sentence might be correct, but semantically, it might be different from what you're actually trying to convey.

The differences are sometimes very subtle and all it takes is a small change in word order.

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#11 share Wang2014

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Posted 14 March 2014 - 11:59 PM

When, and How to learn grammar i think are directly related to why and what you need to speak in Chinese. If you just want to communicate on a basic level with chinese people, the simple grammar rules are most likely all you need. My very first conversation in Chinese was about the purpose of life, where we come from, and where we are going. The first grammar patterns I learned were how to say after this..., before this... , this is why... For me, that was the best way, because that's what I needed to know how to express.

 

I would say 20% of grammar is learned/studied in a book, and the 80% of it comes from listening, reading, speaking, etc...


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#12 share Altair

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Posted 16 March 2014 - 01:21 AM

I like to study many languages. Unlike most people, I like studying grammar and want it to be detailed, comprehensive, and accurate. Unfortunately, Chinese is one of those language for which the grammar is not well understood in many aspects, and so exposure is the only hope to get ahead when the grammar descriptions are lacking.

What I have been forced to do, according to my own learning preference, is consult with an unusually high number of grammar books and even some linguistic papers to construct my own understanding of things like the particle 了.

Chinese is also a little unusual in that many grammar books actually contain gross simplifications, or even information that seems to be wrong. You end up having to approach almost all information with a grain of salt. One way in that Chinese is not unusual , but which is still annoying, is that many of the dictionaries spend too much time documenting usage and too little time explaining, especially in ways that would be useful to foreign language learners.
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#13 share hedwards

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 08:06 AM

Personally, I'd strongly recommend focusing primarily on vocab early on. Chinese grammar is nice in that the early stuff is pretty straight forward. Much of the time you're OK just specifying a time with a verb rather than worrying about tense or aspect. As opposed to English that has a ton of tenses and aspects that you're supposed to care about early on. So, you can get a ton of mileage out of just a few grammar points while you beef up the vocabulary.

 

I know that there's subtleties there that come in as you learn more and more, such as the difference between 过 and 了, as well why you'd use 可能 versus 可以, but unlike a lot of languages, Chinese does allow you to say quite a bit with just a few basic grammar rules.


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#14 share anonymoose

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 09:48 AM

Terrible advice. Grammar is the first thing that should be learnt, and learnt properly. The difference between 过 and 了 is hardly a subletly. No matter how large your vocabulary is, you're not going to be able to say much correctly unless you understand the uses of 过 and 了 and other basic grammar.


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#15 share hedwards

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 10:06 AM

Anonymoose, and pray tell what do you say when you don't have any vocabulary? That's sort of the point, until you have vocabulary, it doesn't matter how perfect your grammar is, because you're not going to be saying anything at all.

Focusing on perfection is an excellent way of ensuring that you never say anything at all. If I had taken your approach of memorizing a ton of grammar rules before speaking, I would never have learned anything at all.

And yes, I should have moved subtlety to later in the sentence, but I'm still right, better to focus on speaking now, then perfect speaking later. Because there's a common tendency for people to fixate on grammar rules and never get around to applying them.
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#16 share tytzer

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 10:12 AM

To begin with.. Just learn up the vocabulary and familiarize themselves with as many Chinese characters as possible.. Either by memory or by learning how to recognize characters..

Then.. and only then.. will I recommend learning up grammar.. 


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#17 share lakers4sho

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 10:56 AM

You can learn vocab and grammar simultaneously. Obviously "learning grammar" doesn't mean memorising the entire 大词典

 

 

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#18 share anonymoose

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 12:18 PM

Well, I guess to some extent it's like a "chicken and egg" situation in that you can't do much with grammar and no vocabulary, or with vocabulary and no grammar. But then I wasn't suggesting that one should ignore vocabulary in favour of grammar. I was rather objecting to focusing on vocabulary at the expense of grammar. Ultimately the optimum is to learn both simultaneously, which is what one inevitably does when learning grammar anyway, since one will always use words to make example sentences. Incidentally, this is effectively the approach taken by "Basic Chinese: A Grammar and Workbook" by Yip and Rimmington, which I have recommended several times before. This book assumes no knowledge of vocabulary to begin with, but over the course of covering the grammar, vocabulary is simultaneously built up (though no focus is ever placed on learning vocabulary specifically).

 

The problem with learning vocabulary at the expense of grammar is that it is inefficient in the long run (similar to not bothering with tones during the initial stages). Without a knowledge of grammar, inevitably most of the sentence one creates will be faulty. They may be close enough to be understood, but they will still be faulty. Going back to the 了 and 过 example, these particles constitute the most basic grammar in Chinese. Without understanding the difference, it will be difficult to talk correctly about any past experience. Why spend time accustoming youself to making faulty sentences, which will be imprinted in your verbal memory, and will then be difficult to correct later on?

 

I agree with you though that one can get a lot of mileage out of a relatively small amount of Chinese grammar. Or perhaps a better way of saying this would be that much of the basic sentence construction has parallels in English, so for native English speakers, basic Chinese grammar is relatively intuitive. However, I'd say that is more of an incentive to get most of the grammar down initially. Unlike other languages, you won't be killed off by the grammar before you can even start using the language.


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#19 share hedwards

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 12:48 PM

Well, I guess to some extent it's like a "chicken and egg" situation in that you can't do much with grammar and no vocabulary, or with vocabulary and no grammar. But then I wasn't suggesting that one should ignore vocabulary in favour of grammar. I was rather objecting to focusing on vocabulary at the expense of grammar. Ultimately the optimum is to learn both simultaneously, which is what one inevitably does when learning grammar anyway, since one will always use words to make example sentences. Incidentally, this is effectively the approach taken by "Basic Chinese: A Grammar and Workbook" by Yip and Rimmington, which I have recommended several times before. This book assumes no knowledge of vocabulary to begin with, but over the course of covering the grammar, vocabulary is simultaneously built up (though no focus is ever placed on learning vocabulary specifically).



The problem with learning vocabulary at the expense of grammar is that it is inefficient in the long run (similar to not bothering with tones during the initial stages). Without a knowledge of grammar, inevitably most of the sentence one creates will be faulty. They may be close enough to be understood, but they will still be faulty. Going back to the 了 and 过 example, these particles constitute the most basic grammar in Chinese. Without understanding the difference, it will be difficult to talk correctly about any past experience. Why spend time accustoming youself to making faulty sentences, which will be imprinted in your verbal memory, and will then be difficult to correct later on?



I agree with you though that one can get a lot of mileage out of a relatively small amount of Chinese grammar. Or perhaps a better way of saying this would be that much of the basic sentence construction has parallels in English, so for native English speakers, basic Chinese grammar is relatively intuitive. However, I'd say that is more of an incentive to get most of the grammar down initially. Unlike other languages, you won't be killed off by the grammar before you can even start using the language.


I'd recommend that the OP not worry about learning things 100% correct unless they're simple things. You are right, that once you know the difference between 过 and 了 that it's not really that tough, the point though is that it's mostly pointless in those first encounters. There's a ton of stuff you need to know and niceties like that aren't really worth the effort until you've mastered the present. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'd rather say 我昨天吃饭 if it means learning several new words initially. Now if I'm in a restaurant or coming out of a restaurant that might be confusing, but otherwise folks would probably figure it out on their own.

I guess it's a matter of perspective, but I learned English to a high degree by replacing incorrect grammatical knowledge along the way. I did the same thing with German and I'm doing it with Chinese and I'll do it again with Spanish and whatever else I like. Because it's easier to fix what is already present than to rely on knowledge that I don't possess at all. What gets people into trouble usually isn't the grammar it's the lack of vocabularly and a lack of confidence in the grammar theyknow.

Anyways, I'll leave it here as this is veering a bit off topic. I'm sure at this stage it's still somewhat relevant to the OP, but I don't think that it's likel to remain relevant for much longer. If you're curious about this, I recommend The 3rd Ear by Chris Lonsdale, he goes into a ton of depth about how to learn Chinese in this fashion..


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#20 share anonymoose

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Posted 10 April 2014 - 01:13 PM

Well, to put another perspective on it, learning vocabulary to a high degree is an effort that takes years. Yes, it doesn't take long to learn how to say you ate yesterday in any language, but if you want to competently read a newspaper, that's not something you'll be able to do in under a year, in Chinese at least (and for many people, it takes several years).

 

On the other hand, learning all the grammar you are likely to ever need in Chinese is something that can be done in months if not weeks. And it is something that is applicable to every single sentence you say, read, hear or write.

 

I know which I'd prioritise. But then, everyone has to find their own way.


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