This is a guest post by Ryan Wells of Zhōng Wén Central.
Regardless of what you may have been told in high school, practice does not make perfect.
Have you ever met someone who seems to practice constantly but just doesn't seem to get anywhere? Maybe a friend who played basketball every weekend in high school to try to get on the A team but just couldn't seem to improve his game enough to step up to where he needed to be in order to be selected.
And then there are those who seem to just get everything right the first time. They have natural talent, and while they may seem to be hard workers, they put in maybe 2-3 hours of practice a day which pales in comparison to many other's efforts.
Now this may be a hard pill to swallow but it is one that must be swallowed nonetheless: hard work alone does not get you to your destination.
Hard work on the right thing, however, does.
This relates directly to language learning, especially Chinese.
Let's take the example of two old friends of mine. Let's call them Mark and Alex.
Mark and Alex decided in college that they wanted to go to China and teach English. They were so excited to do this because they knew it would take care of two things for them:
- They would make some money on a foreign exchange trip in a country that really interested them
- They would become Fluent in Mandarin
One of the above two results came to fruition, the other did not. Can you guess which one?
There is quite a bit of confusion around learning Mandarin and the language brings with it this mystique that one can only expect from an East Asian language. Something about the mystery of China stems into the characters and the articulate way in which the language presents itself to the speaker. As you can probably tell by now, there is quite a bit of appreciation for the beauty of this language from the author.
Many think characters are the hardest part to learn. I tend to disagree. Grammar has always been my Achilles Heel when learning Mandarin and after a decent amount of research, this proved to be a common trend.
Let's get real here: the way things are said in Mandarin are just different. There really is no better way to put it, things are just different. So if you ever want to be a master of the language, a good understanding of grammar combined with active and persistent practice is an essential and yet often overlooked element.
Let's take a look at a quick video for a good demonstration of what I mean by this:
Video not available
Video: Ryan analyzes a short HSK 6 listening passage.
Here's the sentence from the video:
piào liang hé chéng gōng yǒu méi yǒu guān xì? Wǒ rèn wéi yǒu hěn dà de guān xì, yīn cǐ zhǐyào pèng dào hé shì de yī fú, jí shǐ hěn guì wǒ yě huì mǎi. chuān shàng piào liang de yī fú, wǒ huì tè bié zì xìn, kè hù yě huì duì wǒ chǎn shēng liáng hǎo de gǎn jué, zhè duì wǒ de gōng zuò yǒu hěn dà de bāng zhù.
So let's go ahead and break this sentence down.
Remember, many things in Mandarin have much more to do with what is implied by the word rather than the direct translation. For example, if you would translate this sentence directly, it would be something along the lines of:
Pretty and success have not have relationship? I think have very big de relationship, therefore as long as meet suitable de clothes, even if very expensive, I also will buy. Wear on pretty de clothes, I will extraordinary confidence, customers also will correct me produce good de feelings, this correct my work have very big de help.
This is why when speaking/reading/writing/listening to anything in Mandarin, it is very important that you do not! translate word for word.
Consider the sentence above. This is a pretty mild example but still there are parts where you will get very lost should you translate this word for word.
However, what happens when you get the gist of what is being said instead? Ah yes, then you can actually infer the meaning!
This is going to do two things for you:
- Speed up you comprehension time, dramatically - all of a sudden you are not wasting time doing the translation in your head, you just understand the gist of what is being said and therefore get the speaker's point/get your own point across
- Help you think Chinese - wait what?? Think Chinese? What does that even mean? Well here is a theory for you:
Language is the way in which we express thoughts/ideas and grammar is the structure of language, therefore grammar must be the structure of the way we think.
Through this, we can assume that learning the structure of the language allows you to learn the structure of the way the other thinks, and thus puts you in the other's shoes. As it turns out, Chinese grammar is extremely simple, to the point, and get's it's point across in (generally speaking) less words than what we would use in English.
This is truly what happens when you learn another language: you not only learn to communicate with the other person, you learn how to think like them and therefore can relate in a much more practical manner.
Now, let's look at this phrase, step by step:
Chinese: piào liang hé chéng gōng yǒu méi yǒu guān xì? (漂亮和成功有没有关系？)
English: Is there a relationship between beauty and success?
So there are a couple of different things we should cover about this particular sentence. While simple at first glance, this a perfect a example of the concepts I discussed above:
yǒu méi yǒu (有没有) - is literally translated as "have not have" which, if you didn't know by now, is one of the two ways in which we can ask a yes or no question in Chinese.
However, this is also a good example of getting the gist of what is being said. I mean think about it, what else do you think is implied when someone says you you "have not have" then puts a question mark at the end?
Not to mention, this is a great insight into Chinese thinking and language structure: it is very straightforward and literal.
In English we would say "is there a ____ between..." but in Chinese these words are removed entirely. Why? Because they are implied in the sentence.
Chinese doesn't see the point in saying "is there a ____ between" because the "have not have" from above implies a yes or no question. This is good news for you, because in Mandarin the very thought is: why say so many words when only a few will do?
Chinese: wǒ rènwéi yǒu hěn dà de guān xì (我认为有很大的关系)
English: I think there is a strong relationship between them / I think they are related
It is important to note that we we are really talking about here is thee direct correlation between beauty and success and this is implied by the word guān xì (关系) which means relationship, relation and connection. In this case, it implies "affect" but of course guān xì (关系) will also be used to mean relationship as in relationship between two people.
Also, let's note the use of yǒu (有) here: generally speaking, yǒu (有) is used to mean "have" but in this case it is more used to imply the existence of something. So in English, we would say "there is a relationship" but in Chinese you are literally saying "there has a relationship" but of course, don't translate it literally. When you understand that yǒu (有) is used to establish the existence of something, you understand that you can use it in this way in a sentence without meaning "to have."
Finally, let's take a look at "de (的)" here. de (的) if you didn't know by now is what we call a noun modifier, which is simply a fancy way of saying it is the particle of a Chinese sentence that establishes a description or limit of the noun.
In this case, we are saying there is a strong relationship between beauty and success. Relationship is the noun (guān xì (关系)) and strong is the adjective (hěn dà (很大)). Therefore, when describing the relationship, we use the formula: adjective + de (的) + noun.
Chinese: yīn cǐ zhǐyào pèng dào hé shì de yī fú (因此只要碰到合适的衣服)
English: So long as I encounter some suitable clothes.
Okay so this one, while straightforward, has some interesting parts to it. First, yīn cǐ zhǐyào (因此只要) means "So as long as" and pèng (碰) means "bump, touch, meet, run in."
When you add dào (到) after a verb like this, it turns the verb into a resultative complement, which is a really fancy way of explaining that you have modified the verb to attain a result. This is the English equivalent of saying "encounter" instead of "meet" or "bump into" instead of "bump."
Another good example (if you are confused) is turning xiǎng (想), which means to think, into xiǎng dào (想到), which means "to think of." With a resultative complement we are getting a result out of the verb, not just stating the verb. Therefore, pèng (碰) which means "to meet/bump/run in" changes to pèng dào (碰到) which is the equivalent of encounter. This is necessary in this sentence because we want to say that we are encountering the clothes at a certain point in time.
Now, notice again the use of the noun modifier de (的)? In this case, we are describing the clothes as being suitable (hé shì(合适)) and in Chinese, we use suitable to mean "acceptable/befitting." This again follows the formula: adjective + de (的) + noun.
Chinese: jí shǐ hěn guì wǒ yě huì mǎi 即使很贵我也会买
English: Even if it's expensive, I will buy
So jí shǐ(即使) means "even if" (one of a couple of ways to say it actually) and is a good example of a subordinate clause in Chinese. A subordinate clause is that it simply helps the sentence get it's point across. I could tell you that the definition is "a clause that modifies the principal clause or some part of it or that serves a noun function in the principal clause" (source) but really, when are you ever going to need to use that?
What is important to note here is that this subordinate clause in Chinese uses a formula to describe your train of thought, which is why yě (也) is used here.
You will often find yě (也) or dōu (都) to be the second half of an expression like this is Chinese. The formula goes: jí shǐ(即使) + object + yě (也)/dōu (都) + phrase. The meaning here is really negligible (yě (也) literally means "also") so this is a great example of "don't get caught up in the details" rather focus on the gist of what is being said.
Because translating this word for word is "Even if is expensive I also will buy" and you can infer from that, obviously, what is being said.
Chinese: chuān shàng piào liang de yī fú (穿上漂亮的衣服)
English: When I put on good looking/attractive clothes
Two excellent points to bring up here.
The formula ____ + shàng (上) functions almost the same as a resultative complement in Chinese, meaning it changes a verb like chuān (穿) which means "to wear" into a resultative verb that means "to put on." It indicates an upward movement or an accomplishment.
Also, notice piào liang (漂亮) here does not necessarily mean "pretty" which is the literal translation of the word. Rather, it is translated here to mean "good looking" or "attractive."
And of course again notice that we are using the noun modified structure at the end: adjective + de (的) + noun to describe the clothes as being good looking.
Chinese: wǒ huì tè bié zì xìn (我会特别自信)
English: I will be particularly confident
There is a very basic and yet fundamental Chinese sentence structure principle at work here, have you guessed what it is yet?
Yup, you got it, it's the missing shì (是) which as you probably know is the verb "to be." And the underlying principle illustrated in this sentence is that in Mandarin, adjectives function as verbs.
Yes so the word zì xìn (自信) doesn't just mean "confident" it also means "to be confident" so when you use it in a sentence like "I will be confident" using a word like shì (是) isn't just unnecessary, it's completely incorrect.
Now, we will usually use the word hěn (很) in place of the word shì (是) here in order to maintain a rythmic balance (a lot of Chinese has to do with this rythmic balance, hěn (很) carries no meaning in this scenario but usually it is the word for "very") however, we have used the word tè bié (特别) in it's place.
tè bié (特别) means "particularly" or "super" or even "extraordinarily" in some cases. Since we have included a word that ups the intensity of the adjective (confident) we can leave hěn (很) out of the equation here. This is similar to when we use fēi cháng (非常) to describe something as "extremely."
Chinese: kè hù yě huì duì wǒ chǎn shēng liáng hǎo de gǎn jué (客户也会对我产生良好的感觉)
English: Customers will have good feelings about me
Interesting sentence, yeah? It's interesting because of the use of the word "duì (对)" here. You might be thinking to yourself "doesn't duì (对) mean correct?" And right you are, in certain instances.
In others, such as the sentence above, duì (对) will indicate that one part of the sentence is orienting itself towards the other part of the sentence. To simplify it a bit, think of it as meaning "for."
English: It's bad to smoke for the body.
Chinglish: Smoking for body bad.
Chinese: Chōu yān duì shēn tǐ bù hǎo (抽烟对身体不好)
This one is fantastic because it is even simpler: smoking is bad for the body. We want to orient the sentence so that smoking is directed for the body because smoking is going to have an effect on the body and we want to indicate that the effect of smoking is on another part of the sentence.
If you are new to this concept, this could be a little tricky. Which is why you should think of duì (对) in this scenario as meaning "for", "to face", "toward" or "for the sake of."
Now let's look at the phrase "chǎn shēng liáng hǎo de gǎn jué (产生良好的感觉)." chǎn shēng (产生) literal meaning is "produce" so a literal translation of this sentence is "produce good feelings."
Well, in English we don't say "produce feelings" do we? No, we say "have good feelings." Well this is the implied meaning behind chǎn shēng (产生) which also means "generate, emerge, come into being."
This is a surprisingly important concept to understand. There are many instances in Mandarin where you will use a word like "produce" to have a meaning like this in the sentence and this will be fairly unintuitive for you.
The only solution I have for you is to practice, but now since you are practicing the right thing, you will be well on your way to fluency.
Chinese: zhè duì wǒ de gōng zuò yǒu hěn dà de bāng zhù (这对我的工作有很大的帮助)
English: This is a big help for my work
Great phrase, why? Because this summarizes 3 important concepts that we have covered throughout the article already.
For my work this will be a great help. We are saying that something will have an effect on the speaker's work so we have to orient this towards work. Again, the use of duì (对) is necessary.
Also, make note here the use of yǒu (有) to establish the existence of something. Yes we do literally use the word "to have" in the sentence but we are much more concerned with the fact that "to have" implies the establishment of existence of "big help."
And finally, we are using the noun modifier here again. The formula adjective + de (的) + noun comes into play because we are showing that the help we are receiving is "big."
Learn Mandarin, But Learn It Correctly
At the end of the day, you are what you eat. And by that I mean, much like the body, your language capabilities will be determined by the quality of education you have taken in and which practice does not make perfect, perfect practice will get you close to perfection.
Which is one of the fantastic reasons about Mandarin HQ here. Angel is not only fantastically knowledgeable about her craft, she is very good at teaching it.
Ryan Wells is the founder of www.zhongwencentral.com, speaks fluent Mandarin, English and a little Portugese. He was originally inspired to learn Mandarin after a Navy Recruiter laughed at him for wanting to learn Spanish.