5 Worldwide Mistakes When Learning Mandarin

When learning a new language, one inevitable truth is that we have to make mistakes. Failing is a good way to remind ourselves that we are learning and improving. A lot of times adults are afraid to make mistakes, because they get embarrassed, but push through the fear and nervousness because if you don’t make a mistake, you cannot get fluent.

When it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese, making mistakes is pretty common since the syntax and sound of the words are completely different from English. If you’re an English speaker and you’re on a journey to learn Mandarin, these 5 common mistakes English speakers make when acquiring Mandarin fluency will be very helpful for you.

1. Putting Topics at the End

In English, we explain – a lot – in terms of grammar. Let us explain what we mean. We say the subject (I, you, we, they, he) FIRST, and then we say the verb and what happened afterwards.

But when writing or speaking in Mandarin Chinese, everything revolves around the object and not the subject, as in English. Mandarin is the complete opposite, which makes it challenging for English speakers to organize a sentence in their brains.

Mandarin is called a topic-prominent language, which means that the topic (what we’re talking about) is the most important element in the way they speak. This is because, for Mandarin speakers, the context is very important since Mandarin is a very simple and “clean” language.

For example, in English, you would say 我喜欢咖啡 (Wǒ xǐhuān kāfēi), which means “I like coffee.” While the correct order of ideas for this expression in Mandarin is literally “咖啡我喜欢” (Kāfēi wǒ xǐhuān) or “coffee, I like.”

If you use English-like order of words/syntax when speaking in Mandarin, what you have to do is reverse this. The object of your sentence goes first and then you add the rest of the information. This will help you sound more natural and fluent in Mandarin.

2. Don’t forget 拼音 (Pīnyīn)

As you probably might know, Mandarin Chinese is a language that created a whole phonetic chart to help you with the sounds of the language, and this is very important to look at! Mandarin is a tonal language, completely different from English, so it’s important to first understand what that means. A tonal language means that different tones in your voice or stresses on certain parts of the word can cause the word to mean something completely different. The closest we can compare to this is desert and dessert. It’s not exactly like that, but it’s the closest example we can think of. But with tone of voice!

And because of this, it is very important to say things (phonetically) in the correct tone. If not, you probably won’t be able to express yourself correctly when speaking. Remember, the tone marks the meaning of whatever you are saying and oddly, this is the thing that formal classes often forget to teach us. This is why when I first went to China, I ended up asking everybody, “Can I kiss you?” 吻 (Wěn), instead of what I wanted to ask: Can I ask you something? 问 (Wèn).

Also, in my journey through languages and teaching Mandarin to others, I’ve found that if students understand the pinyin chart and master the sounds of Mandarin, they gain confidence and start speaking more, since the pinyin chart helps us conceptualize, and then say, the sounds more easily and more correctly.

3. Giving Too Much Info

As we’ve mentioned in point number one, Mandarin is very “efficient” in comparison to other languages. If there’s any grammatical component that is not necessarily important (like objects, or subjects) and it’s already in the context you are in, then, you’re not going to say it. Think also: fewer prepositions, no articles (the, an, a), and more.

If we literally translated Mandarin, it would sound a bit like a caveman speaking: hello, please, one, glass, beer, give, me (hello, please give me one glass of beer.) As you can see, we don’t need any extra information; we only need to get straight to the point. So don’t forget about this if you want to speak Mandarin Chinese more naturally.

4. Write 在 (action) At the End of the Sentences

As if we haven’t said it enough, Mandarin is a topic-based language. Second, the action or verb goes at the end. This means that the additional info is always going to be in the middle of the sentence. Why? It just is. Here is an example:

If you want to say that you go to the office to work you will probably write it like this: 我去工作在公司 (Wǒ qù gōngzuò zài gōngsī) but this would be literally translated as “I went to work in a company.” Because, for us English speakers, the action comes before the place, but this is very incorrect in Mandarin.

The correct form will always have the object first which in this case would be “gōngsī” (office.) Why? Because that’s the place where the action is made so you “are” (在) doing something there. 我去公司在工作 (Wǒ qù gōngsī zài gōngzuò) is the correct way to write this sentence. This is translated as, “I go to the office to work.” Which is what we wanted to say at the very beginning.

So be careful whenever you’re using 在 (action) in a sentence because where you position it can change the verbal time you’re speaking at.

5. Using 和 (and) to Connect Everything

When it comes to English “and” is a thing that we say a lot, right? But in Mandarin, this does not happen in the same way. 和 can be literally translated as “and”, but there are plenty of ways to express “and.”

Remember that Mandarin is a very specific language, so there are different ways of expressing it, according to the elements that we are working with. If you’re connecting two nouns, you’ll use 和. But when the subject and the action are performing together, you’ll use 跟 (Gēn). Then, when you’re connecting similar verbal phrases you will use 也 (). And the list goes on and on and on.

How to Avoid Making Mistakes in Mandarin Chinese

I know, all of these Mandarin rules seem pretty complicated to remember and understand. There are plenty of ways of improving our skills in a language: reading, watching movies and TV shows, and listening to podcasts, to name a few. But even though these are very good ways to improve our Mandarin skills, sometimes, the most common mistakes are almost unnoticeable to us, so we keep making them until they get solidified in our brains. Then, if we continue learning, it will be harder for us to correct them later. This is why it is very important to make sure that when learning Mandarin, we have a strong base.

In this case, one-to-one lessons with Mandarin native speakers, or with very high-quality teachers is a very good way to make sure that our mistakes are being corrected in the best possible way. Even though making mistakes can be sometimes embarrassing and annoying, it is necessary in order to learn. So don’t be afraid, make mistakes and keep getting better at Mandarin! 加油!

If you would like to try a private lesson with a native speaker to improve your Mandarin, check out a trial class for just $35.