The surprising truth about Chinese grammar

Let’s take a look at some widespread myths about Chinese, and also do some myth-busting too. Come along.

Chinese doesn’t have grammar!

There is something I hear all the time, from foreigners and native Chinese speakers alike. It is this claim: 

“Chinese doesn’t have any grammar.”

Do you agree? 

To me, as a linguist, as a language learner, this statement is a great mystery. I find myself thinking: 

“Of course Chinese has grammar! Why do you think that it doesn’t?”

I think that it comes down to a basic misunderstanding about what grammar means. Let’s try to clear things up a bit.

Let’s take a look at what Chinese does and doesn’t’ have.

Everyone knows that English has a lot go grammar. Is this true?

Let’s look a word markings to distinguish between verbs, nouns, or adjectives.

It’s true that Chinese words don’t have any surface features to mark certain words as nouns, and other as verbs. 

But neither does English! 

活 (Verb. 她活到八十歲) (Noun. 我的活兒幹完了)

Sleep (Verb. She will sleep for 8 hours.) (Noun. I need a good night’s sleep.)

See what I mean?

Some good news for Chinese speakers

And still, Chinese is often contrasted with English as an example of a foreign language that has so much of that grammar stuff that Chinese people can never hope to learn, not even in an entire lifetime of practice. 

The reason that is given for this is often that someone who doesn’t speak in grammar will have a hard time learning how to use grammar. 

The good news is, I don’t think this is true at all!

Chinese speakers can master English to a very high level, and grammar has nothing to do with it. 

Does neither English nor Chinese have any grammar?

Some languages do mark their words openly. For example Spanish and Swedish mark their verbs clearly.

Swedish:

Leva (Eng. Live) (Ch. 生)
Hoppa (Eng. Hop) (Ch. 跳)
Dricka (Eng. Drink) (Ch. 喝)

Notice the final “A” marking them as verbs.

Spanish:

Vivir (Eng. Live) (Ch. 生)
Saltar (Eng. Hop) (Ch. 跳)
Beber (Eng. Drink) (Ch. 喝)

Notice the final “IR, AR, ER” marking them as verbs.

And also notice that both Chinese and English apparently don’t have this grammar at all.

Chinese has more grammar than foreign languages!

We have been looking at “markings” on words. Another way of stating this though is simply that some words need to be associated with specific features based on what kind of word they are.

This is definitely true for Chinese! 

Chinese has classifiers that have to be put in front of nouns in many situations. Note “have to”, this implies that not saying the measure words where they ought to be will sound wrong to native Chinese speakers. This is Chinese grammar!

For example:

條路 (Eng. Road)
座大樓 (Eng. Building)
匹馬 (Eng. Horse)

Ok, I think you’re getting the hang of this. Let’s look at some other things that people call grammar.

Verb endings

Verb suffixes or prefixes to mark who did the action: 

I (Sp. -o)
You (singular) (Sp. -as)
She, he (Sp. -a)
We (Sp. -amos)
You (plural) (Sp. -ais)
Them (Sp. -an)

No Chinese doesn’t have those. 

But neither do the foreign languages Swedish or Norwegian for example, and English honestly only marks for plural, and mostly just in the present tense!

Chinese does have a bunch of other “things to put on verbs” though. We can call them “result endings” and they behave pretty much as verb endings do in other languages.

懂 as in 我沒聽懂
好 as in 準備好
完 as in 妳看完了嗎

And many more.

I dare you to try to find these in any of the other languages I have mentioned so far.

You may think Chinese doesn’t have grammar because people who are not linguists have been spreading this myth for a long time. 

They probably did this simply because they didn’t see any Chinese plural endings, and didn’t know any more about grammar than that.

But Chinese is still so different!

Maybe you think that Chinese doesn’t have any grammar (語法) because the word is often used in combination with foreign languages. In Chinese we mostly talk about 詞語(expressions and phrases) and 用法 (usage and pragmatics) after all.

And Chinese grammar is on the surface different from theirs. But different doesn’t mean non-existing. 

This is great news!

What does this mean?

  • It means that grammar isn’t that foreign scary thing that you might have been lead to believe! 

  • Every language has grammar, including yours! 

  • If you could learn the grammar of Chinese, even if you did it as a kid, then you can most definitely learn that of a foreign language too! 

Yes, it will be different. But isn’t’ that the point of learning a different language? : )

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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