Why You Aren’t Mastering Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is simple. The verbs don’t conjugate; there’s no adding -ing for the present tense. In fact, there is no real tense. You just add words to indicate a time or perhaps a sense of completion. Ironically – this can make mastering the grammar more difficult.How to Study Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is deceptively easy.

Chinese is not like German. Just to understand German grammar, you’ve probably spent some time practicing and studying. If you look at an explanation of Chinese grammar, most of the time it will straight forward. For example, when you want to turn a statement into a question, just add 吗 (ma) to the end of the sentence. You might think, well that’s easy and stop there. Here’s the problem: you don’t need to understand Chinese grammar, you need to use it. Without thinking.

Where you are going wrong.

Many people go wrong here. It isn’t that you won’t be able to ask a question with 吗 (ma.) You will, but slowly. It will come out as stilted as you pause, think and then add the ma to the end of the sentence. Even worse, while you might remember to add ma for questions, there are literally hundreds of simple explanations. If you don’t practice until the grammar comes smoothly, you won’t remember them all. How you study Chinese matters.

Don’t read – use.

First, let’s go back to some basic learning. Reading over grammar is not the best way to study. Using the grammar is. When you practice using a pattern it develops pathways in your brain. At first, it’s a rough footpath with rocks. With practice, the footpath becomes smooth and easier to walk. You know this path. You don’t forget your way and stumble. You just walk the path naturally.

Here are three ways to drill yourself on grammar:

Translation drills

Take an English sentence and try to say it in Chinese. You can make flashcards with English on one side and the Chinese on the other. Then get to work. This approach is essential early on, but will also help you understand the language on a deeper level.

Sentence transformation

So work out some drills. For 吗 (ma) you might convert back and forth with the question choice type method of asking questions in Chinese.  “Nǐ hǎo ma” becomes “Nǐ hǎo bù hǎo?”

Practice saying sentences in different tenses. Make flashcards with a sentence on the front. Write the sentence in past or future tense on the back. Now practice with the flashcards when you get the chance.

Flashcard vocabulary drill

Make a series of flashcards with a vocabulary word one one sentence and a complete sentence on the other side. Look at the word, make a sentence and then check your work.

Daily practice

As you go about life every day, think about the questions you ask. Try to ask and answer these questions in Chinese (in your head!) When you go to a restaurant, think about how you would order the chicken or a drink. When you go to the post office, think about how to ask for stamps. When you go to the grocery store, name as many foods or other items as you can.

What drills do you use? Tell us in the comments!