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an interesting problem with 来/没来

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Hi ! I am a layman winging it in explaining this Chinese-to-English conundrum.

(1) 我没来中国以前,我不会说汉语。

(2) 我来中国以前,我不会说汉语。

In both Chinese sentences, the constructions are simple and the thoughts are logical (yes, logical !). I have broken both sentences down in the following timeline where “||” = the point in time when “我来中国”:


<==(1) 我没来中国 || (2) 我来中国

<==========以前 ||---------------->

<== 我不会说汉语。||



<= (1) “I had not come to China” || (2) “I came to China”

<==“I could not speak Chinese.” ||

The first sentence expressed in English might sound awkward. However, one literal attempt might look like this:

“Before, (when) I had not come to China, I could not speak Chinese.”

Note: (a) the main idea is, “Before, I could not speak Chinese.”; (B) the first comma renders “(when) I had not come to China” as a bit of information about “before”; © without the comma, the sentence sounds too “Chinglish” and has a slight problem making sense, but we could possibly figure out the meaning and understand.

Second sentence is readily translatable in English: “Before I came to China, I could not speak Chinese.” (that is, “Before” (the point in time when) “I came to China,….”)

There are also two other mental twists that make it difficult to translate the first sentence. One is the double negative, where in English grammar textbooks mean positive, like in math, except when understood to be negative in certain dialects. Two is the Chinese way of always using “to come” to China, when native English speakers naturally say “to go” to China.

From this explanation and from the above timeline, the two sentences actually mean the same, and we would translate both sentences the same way in English, i.e.: “Before I came to China, I could not speak Chinese.” Clear, neat, and simple.


1. The thought process of the first sentence in Chinese is logical and natural because it describes the “before” situation rather well (just follow left side of timeline).

2. The Chinese language shows once again how it is concise and flexible, but at the expense of clarity.

3. The English language has difficulty translating the first sentence pattern. And if our thought process is a product of our language and influences how we learn Chinese, then we are going to experience frustration and misunderstanding.

4. Native English speakers need to remember this example and adapt or re-wire their thought process so one does not stumble with or fight this pattern. Descriptions of the Chinese speaker as being “illogical,” “uneducated,” and other improperly placed insults would cause the native English speaker to have fewer native Chinese speaking friends.

Please, only kind and helpful responses to the topic. I hope this helps.

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at the expense of clarity

It may not be clear to learners, but it is clear to natives.

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