The surprising truth about Chinese grammar, 2

We’ve already talked about the idea that Chinese has no grammar: See “The surprising truth about Chinese grammar”.

This topic is both important and fun because it is repeated so often, by Taiwanese and foreigners alike.

Let’s have another look!

The surprising truth about Chinese grammar, 2

Chinese is so unique it’s hard for us to learn foreign languages

When someone who is not a linguist compares two languages they usually look at the most obvious spoken and written features and draw the conclusions they intuitively feel are true.

This is not wrong to do per se, but it can lead to many skewed conclusions made in haste.

Chinese has tones, no foreign languages have that

This is simply false, as I think most Chinese speakers are aware.

All Chinese languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, and so on, are famous for having tones.

But Asians will know that tones are also found in:


Chinese has been hyped up by the “big foreigners”

I think the hype around Chinese tones, and how incredibly difficult (and therefore unique) they are, comes from foreigners who speak one of the big European languages. These are also the “foreign” languages that native Chinese speakers are most likely to come across.

For example:

And no, these languages don’t use tones to distinguish between the meaning of words.

But did you know that there are several small (compared to German) European languages that use tones?

It’s true. Even in Europe! Especially around the prosperous Baltic Sea area.

Let’s have a look:

Anden (High falling + low tone) (Eng. The duck)
Anden (Mid falling + High falling tone) (Eng. The spirit)

Bønder (High falling tone) (Eng. Farmers)
Bønner (Low falling tone) (Eng. Beans)

Loks (High tone) (Eng. Onion)
Loks (Rising + falling tone) (Eng. Arch)
Logs (Rising + stop + falling tone) (Eng. Window)

Tones are not “either-or”, some languages use tones a little bit, some a lot. And standard Mandarin is far from the most complicated one! Taiwanese Hokkien is far more complex.

Even without the tones, Chinese and “foreign” sounds are completely different!

Well, yes and no. Let’s use English as an example.

Both languages have a similar number of consonants:

Chinese 21 consonants
English 24 consonants

And they’re more similar than not. (Wikipedia & Wikipedia)


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What about the monophonic vowels?

Chinese 6
English around 10 (depending on dialect)

But the differences are relatively small. (Chinese, and then English) :


Also, both Chinese and English rely a lot on diphthongs (vowel combinations):

Chinese around 9 (wikipedia)
English around 7 (languagebitswikipedia)

Yes the particular sounds are not exactly the same, but overall this doesn’t strike me as “completely different”

Just like the Chinese tones are over-hyped, so I think that the English “R” sound has been over-hyped as well. And the Chinese “R” is even a very similar sound.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn Italian with its long trilling “RR’ sounds knows what I mean.

Always focus on grammar and the rules!

This is certainly true if you are a student “cramming” for some test the teacher (or parent) says you must take.

The problem with this view is that these tests are really just there “for show”.

  • It shows that the school has managed to produce students who pass the test
  • Shows for future bosses that they have an employee that could pass the test.

So, do these tests have any real value beyond showing off?

  • No, not really
  • They certainly don’t say much about your level to actually use the language

The famous polyglot Kato Lomb writes the same in chapter 21 of her book How I Learn Languages:

“A STUDENT can measure his knowledge of a foreign language based on the grades he earns in his classes, at least in theory.”

— Kato Lomb

A foreigner learning Chinese can be an expert in many things:

  • writing pinyin
  • explaining the tone numbers and what they mean
  • the history of the Chinese language and culture
  • thousands of characters, what they originally looked like
  • how the radicals work

She will pass many tests showing how much she knows and how well she writes.

  • Does this mean that she can understand local Chinese native speakers?
  • Does this mean that they will understand her?

Sadly, not at all.

The same is true for native Chinese speakers who want to learn English or any other foreign language.

How do we fix this?

You need to actually listen! Not just hear

Brett Jordan / Unsplash

To master foreign sounds we first have to stop paying attention to all the hype that others make and then start to actually listen for ourselves.

  • Just hearing isn’t enough!
  • Having a radio on in the background isn’t going to improve your foreign language skills!
  • Even moving to another country won’t help you (this is another common myth)!

We need to take control of our listening process and build it up methodically as our skills increase.

The key

The key to mastering language learning is to have good language habits!

We at LingSpark are dedicated to just that. We offer classes that will help to build you up as a proficient language learner.

We are your language Personal Trainers!

We will explain to you exactly how languages work, and how to build up your language muscles, step by step, and always with your goal in mind.

See you around, and get ready to learn your new language!

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