Learn Chinese From Your Student’s Mistakes
Learning any language is hard! Transitions and translations between two languages can be particularly rocky– especially with Chinese and English. I’ve heard a couple of mistakes repeated by my students that have given me clues about what the translation sounds like in Chinese.
1. “There have”
“There have some cookies” or “There have a dog” are common phrases I hear on a daily basis. Or the colloquial answer, “Yes. Have.” in reaction to an assertive “No, there don’t have!”
This is a direct translation from the Chinese– na li yo or “there have”. It’s tough in English to think ahead with your sentence. Which pronoun am I talking about? How many subjects?
In Chinese, there is no breakdown between is/are so it’s a lot easier to just say ‘have’ than have to think of which to use. Also, there are no pronouns to speak of either. ‘Ta’ is used for he and she with no special verb modifications.
This is very useful in learning Chinese particularly in unlearning pronouns, verb actions because of certain pronouns, tenses, and even the number of subjects. Chinese has some tricky stuff too, but this is pretty great!
2. “This is what?”
“This is what?” or “Number 4 is what?” are also things I hear at the beginning of class usually. This is another direct translation– the order of the sentence in Chinese is different than the order in English.
In Chinese, the order goes roughly — time + Subject + location + verb + object. Also, ‘ma’ with no tone is used to indicate a question. So, naturally, ‘shen ma’ would be at the end of the sentence.
Using this, it’s pretty easy to put together other sentences if you know the subject you are talking about. “This” or “That” is what– just be prepared for an answer you might not understand!
3. “Can write?”
This statement is simply asking if the student is allowed to write their homework now. They might also say, “Can go?” or “Can talk?” This is because, in Chinese, it is common to skip the subject of the sentence if you are talking about yourself.
If you are asking someone if you can do something, the subject ‘I’ is already implied.
This is a good tip to know, too! If you know what you want to do, you do not have to say ‘wo’! Just say the can (ke yi) + action.
4. “Give you”
When a student hands you something, they will say, “Give you.” It never fails. This is a direct translation from ‘gei ni’. Again, no subject needs to be implied because ‘I’ am the one enacting the action but the object is ‘you’.
It’s a great translation on their part, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense in English where we need a subject, verb, and an object to really understand a sentence.
But, at least now you know if you want to give something to someone all you need to say is ‘gei ni’!
5. “I don’t have”
“I no have homework finish!” or “I don’t have homework finish!” is your student’s way of telling you they didn’t finish their homework from yesterday. You might even have a mixture of verbs here, from don’t to doesn’t.
In case you haven’t heard, there are no sentence tenses in Chinese. The way you tell someone if something is happening in the past, present, or future in Chinese is to use different words before the stated time.
For example, “I will go to Yangming mountain on Saturday” — “Wo qu Yangmingshan xing qi liu.” xing is basically your ‘will’ in this sense– the translation is “I go Yungming mountain upcoming Saturday.” Whereas, in English, you just need to remember how to modify the verb. Very confusing to students and teachers alike!
If you want to tell someone where you will be, you must remember there are no Chinese ‘verb tenses’!
It’s easy to understand where the student’s mistakes are coming from when you look at the direct translations from Chinese. Learning a new language takes a lot of time, patience, and practice– but if you began to pick up on your student’s mistakes as you’re learning Chinese, it could very well help you learn as well!
Have you noticed the same mistakes? Do you have any others that you have picked up on that has helped with your understanding of Chinese? Let us know in the comments section below.
Michaela left her small town in the flat cornfields of Iowa in April of 2015 to explore the world before becoming condemned to a desk in an IT corporation. She has been teaching at Hess International English school in Taipei,Taiwan and shopping, hiking, and eating her way through the foreign streets. She has traveled alone and encountered many interesting experiences and hopes to aid others traveling alone as well.