Is Mandarin Chinese as difficult as everyone says?
For beginners whose native language is English, I would say that it is as difficult as everyone says – it’s hard as hell.
The challenge lies in the fact that there are so many new things to master: for example, pinyin, pronunciation, a new writing system and a totally different approach to grammar.
The way to overcome this complexity is to break it down and to see each piece in isolation. When you do that, it actually becomes much simpler, and even logical.
Why Mandarin Chinese Sentence Structure?
Chinese sentence structure is a good place to start because:
- It’s a foundational part of the Chinese language.
- It’s relatively simple and so helps you build confidence.
- It helps you understand the essential qualities of Chinese grammar.
Let me elaborate on the last point a bit.
The most disorienting part of Chinese grammar is that it feels like driving a car without a steering wheel. Unlike English, Chinese grammar has no tenses or conjugation. Not sure what I mean? Read on.
5 Simple Examples of Chinese Sentence Structure
Here are 5 really simple sentence structures to get you started.
1. Subject + Verb: “nĭ chī”
“Nĭ” means “you” and “chī” means “to eat .” So this means “you eat.”
2. Subject + Verb + Object: “nĭ chī fàn”
nĭ means “you” and “chī” means to eat and “fàn” means “food” or “rice.”
So this means “you eat food.” Or “you are eating.”
But if the tense of eat/chī isn’t clear, then how do Chinese people communicate?
The answer is that it’s implied from the context. If they want to be clearer, they provide more details like in the next example.
3. Subject + Time + Verb + Object: “nĭ jīn tiān chī fàn”
“jīn tiān” means “today,” so this means “today I eat rice/food.”
If the person wants to clarify the tense, instead of changing the verb “chī” which means “to eat,” they add the time after the noun.
This is what I meant when I said there are no tenses or conjugation. The verb “chī” has a timeless quality about it, sort of like an element in chemistry.
4. Subject + Verb + Object + ma: “nĭ jīn tiān chī fàn ma”
Adding “ma” at the end converts a sentence into a question. So this means “today do you eat rice?”
You can use this for any question that has a yes/no answer. (So you wouldn’t be able to use it for something like “what do you think of this food?”)
Isn’t this much simpler than English? How would you go about explaining to an English learner how they can ask a question?
5. Subject + Time + Verb: “nĭ jīn tiān chī”
This means “you eat today.” We’ve removed the word “fan”, which is implied.
Chinese people love to be concise, so if they can communicate the same thing with less they say less.
Where to Go for More Chinese Sentence Structure Goodness
I hope that you’ve found this post helpful in starting to understand Chinese grammar and Chinese sentence structure. If you want more, I would recommend the following next steps:
- Language Immersion with FluentU: FluentU helps you learn Chinese intuitively with real-world videos. The Newbie Essentials I: Talking About People course will have you applying some of the things you’ve learned here.
- Mandarin Sentence Structure: Guidelines: Very insightful additional tips here, such as topic prominence, modifiers, and the importance of even syllables.
- Chinese Grammar Wiki In-Depth Article on Word Order: a truly comprehensive resource, if you want to dive deep into Chinese sentence structure.
- Questions and Answers on Simple, Yet Confusing Grammar Rules: answers to common questions on tricky grammar rules. This is more advanced content.
And One More Thing…
If you like learning real-world Chinese, then you’ll love FluentU.
FluentU lets you learn authentic Chinese from movie trailers, cartoons, news, vlogs, inspiring talks and more. It naturally eases you into learning Chinese language, as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos. In fact, below you’ll even see the song “Let It Go” from the hit movie “Frozen”:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions, examples, an image and audio that will help you understand how a word is used.
Simply tap on any word to add it to one of your vocab lists for review.
FluentU’s Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU continually keeps track of your vocabulary. It suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.