Tackling Chinese Grammar

This post discusses the bane of many Chinese language learners, children or otherwise, grammar!

Being a humble blog post, we will be focusing mainly on how to help our children who are raised in non-Chinese dominant societies with their Chinese grammar, rather than the actual grammar itself.

 Why is grammar important  

You might wonder:

  • isn’t grammar just an archaic form of study?
  • isn’t oral fluency more important than learning about subjects, objects, adverbials, modifiers, and who knows what else?
  • if you’re in an Anglophone society, of what use is Chinese grammar?

Proper grammar is essential for clarity in communication. Although people will still understand the gist of the message, proper Chinese grammar will make it easier for people to comprehend and converse with your children and avoid miscommunication.

Furthermore, though it may not be fair or reasonable, many people judge others based on the correct usage of grammar (regardless of what language) and will make assumptions about a person’s intelligence, competence, and diligence.

Below are a few tips on how to help your children learn Chinese grammar.

 Surround your children with native speakers 

Whether in real life or via technology, expose your children to as many types of Chinese speech as possible. The more your children hear Chinese from you, a caregiver, different kinds of songs, stories, lessons, shows, the news, and movies, the more they will unconsciously absorb Chinese grammar and speech patterns.

It’s important that you intentionally introduce your children to as many types of Chinese as possible so that they can hear how Chinese grammar may change depending on the situation, formality, or topic. The more consistent and familiar spoken Chinese language becomes for your children, the more natural their spoken and written grammar will be.

 Read, read, read, and read some more 

As with listening, read to and/or have your children read as many varieties of writing as possible (eg: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, business, educational, texts, etc.). The very act of reading aloud or silently to themselves ingrains the rhythm and syntax of Chinese into their hearts and minds.

There is a reason why the number one advice given to writers is for them to read a lot (and quality writing, at that). There is no better way to engrave a language into a person than constant and consistent exposure. It will allow your children to have the sound of Chinese at the forefront of their brains so that they will automatically choose “natural” sounding phrasing.

 Provide adequate correct example for your child 

It’s natural to simply tell our children they’re incorrect. However, many of our children are perfectionists and may thus clam up and not speak Chinese altogether. Instead, offer several choices for your child to memorize or say in lieu of what they originally said. If you’re so inclined, explain the reasoning or grammar rule behind it so your child can apply it in the future. It may take several times before the fixes stick so be patient. It’s difficult to rewire the way our brains process language.

 Formally teach Chinese grammar 

Few people enjoy grammar. Teaching Chinese grammar can range from having your child memorizing all the different Chinese classifiers (量詞) (there are so many that even native children have trouble!) to taking a class or going through a Chinese grammar textbook.

You may choose to do this yourself, outsource to a tutor, or find Chinese grammar videos online. Start with the grammar rules that provide the biggest return for the amount of time you invest.

For example, though it may be tedious, learning the most commonly used classifiers will make a huge difference and immediately elevate your children’s Chinese to a more native level. If only because most non-native speakers default to the measure word 個/gè/ for everything and use 雙/shuāng/pair/ instead of 條/tiáo/(classifier for long, thin, narrow objects) for pants.

Another trick (especially for older children who have studied some English grammar) is to teach basic Chinese word order so your kids can sound more native. This may be something you are not consciously aware of and do instinctively, in the same way most native English speakers aren’t ever taught but still naturally know the general order of adjectives.

Take English as an example, the general order of adjectives is marked by this hierarchy:

  1. Quantity or number
  2. Quality or opinion
  3. Size
  4. Age
  5. Shape
  6. Color
  7. Proper adjective (eg: nationality, origin, or material)
  8. Purpose or qualifier

Thus: Three delicious, large, 2 day old, triangular, pink, American breakfast biscuits.

Try re-arranging any of the adjectives and it will sound wrong for some reason.

For Chinese, an easy word order to teach is that modifiers (adjectives, adverbs) generally precede what they’re modifying (nouns, verbs). There are more complete sentence structures, but that is outside the scope of this article.

 Practice 

This sounds obvious but we often forget that just because you learn the rules or passively acquire knowledge of how a language works, this information doesn’t lock in until we actively practice using what we know.

Inherent in practicing is making lots of mistakes. Give space and grace to your children as they navigate the tricky task of learning the nuances of multiple languages.

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