Top 3 Beginner Mandarin Mistakes

Over years of teaching Mandarin to English speakers, I’ve noticed a few recurring mistakes that can end up turning into bad habits if left uncorrected. The following is a list of the most common Mandarin learning mistakes made by beginners.

Note: Incorrect Mandarin is displayed in red whereas corrections are displayed in green

1. Overuse of “是” (shì: to be)

A common mistake I often hear students make is using 是 in sentences with an adjective. An example: “你是很漂亮×” (“Nǐ shì hěn piàoliang”). This is a literal translation from the English sentence “you are very pretty.” However, in Chinese this kind of sentence doesn't need a verb. The correct way to say this is: “你很漂亮” (Nǐ hěn piàoliang).

Similarly, the sentence 他是很高(Tā shì hěn gāo: he is very tall.) is incorrect. 高(gāo), like 漂亮(piàoliang), is an adjective, and therefore this sentence does not need a 是(shì): 他很高(Tā hěn gāo).

So when do we use 是(shì)? 是(shì) is used in sentences where the word used to describe something is a noun. 你是中国人(Nǐ shì zhōngguó rén: you are Chinese), for example. This sentence is similar to 你很漂亮(Nǐ hěn piàoliang), as in both cases we are saying something about 你(nǐ). But in the first sentence, the word used is an adjective, 漂亮(piàoliang), whereas in the second sentence the word used is a noun, 中国人(zhōngguó rén).

If you have trouble figuring out which words are adjectives and which words are nouns, keep the following in mind. When describing something with an adjective it is usually an opinion (not everyone will agree someone is pretty). But when using a noun, what is being described is fact.

2. Overuse of “和” (hé: and)

This is the Mandarin version of the run on sentence. The elements joined by “和” (hé: and) are coordinate and they often belong to the same kind. Generally, “和” (hé: and) is not used to join clauses. For example, when talking about hobbies, students may say “我喜欢看电影和我喜欢听音乐”(wǒ xǐhuan kàn diànyǐng hé wǒ xǐhuan tīng yīnyuè: I like watching movies and I like listening to music.) Since “我喜欢看电影” and “我喜欢听音乐” are two clauses, we do not use “和” (hé: and) to connect them. There are two ways to correct this:

  1. Make the clauses dependent. “我喜欢看电影和听音乐” (wǒ xǐhuan kàn diànyǐng hé tīng yīnyuè), because “看电影”(kàn diànyǐng) and “听音乐”(tīng yīnyuè) are not full sentences anymore.
  2. Use a comma to connect the two clauses. “我喜欢看电影,也喜欢听音乐” (wǒ xǐhuan kàn diànyǐng,yě xǐhuan tīng yīnyuè).

Examples

  1. 咖啡多少钱一杯和啤酒多少钱一瓶 (kāfēi duōshǎo qián yìbēi hé píjiǔ duōshǎo qián yìpíng: How much is a cup of coffee and how much is a bottle of beer?)
    咖啡多少钱一杯?啤酒多少钱一瓶?(kāfēi duōshǎo qián yìbēi? píjiǔ duōshǎo qián yìpíng?)
  2. 医生给我一些药和说: “多喝水.”× (yīsheng gěi wǒ yìxiē yào hé shuō ‘duōhēshuǐ’ ×: The doctor gave me some medicine and said “drink more water”).

3. Misplaced Adverbial Words

Adverbial words should be put before the verb in a sentence as opposed to at the end. Native English speakers often make this common mistake because it is sometimes tough to overcome the established language patterns that have become second nature. The basic structure of Chinese sentences is: S + adverbial words + V(O).

Examples

    • I got up at 7 o’clock.
    • 我起床7点。(Wǒ qǐchuáng 7diǎn.)
    • 我7点起床。(Wǒ 7diǎn qǐchuáng.)
    • I study in Peking University.
    • 我学习在北京大学。(Wǒ xuéxí zài běijīng dàxué.)
    • b. 我在北京大学学习。(Wǒ zài běijīng dàxué xuéxí.)
    • I go to work by subway
    • 我上班坐地铁。(Wǒ shàngbān zuò dìtiě.)
    • 我坐地铁上班。(Wǒ zuò dìtiě shàngbān.)
    • I play basketball with my friends
    • 我打篮球跟我的朋友。(Wǒ dǎ lánqiú gēn wǒde péngyou.)
    • 我跟我的朋友打篮球。(Wǒ gēn wǒde péngyou dǎ lánqiú.)

Maria writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese and Chinese language. She completed her MA at Beijing Foreign Studies University and has over 6 years experience teaching Mandarin. She founded GoEast together with Wang Rong in 2010.