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5 Most Common Mistakes When Studying Chinese

5 Most Common Mistakes When Studying Chinese

This article is intended to go over some of the most common mistakes committed by students when trying to learn Chinese. The points listed here are based on my experience as a student and as the manager of a small Chinese Academy.

1. Neglecting to study Chinese characters

One of the most complicated aspects of the Chinese language is without a doubt its writing system. Learning how to read and write characters is a difficult task that can discourage many students.

Many students who are anxious to learn Chinese as quickly as possible decide to put aside studying writing to focus on learning how to speak Chinese through the phonetic system (pinyin).

There is no doubt that learning Chinese exclusively through pinyin is the most common mistake committed by people when starting to learn Chinese. Aware of this, over the past years, many “miraculous” Chinese courses based on this principle have appeared, promoting it as an easy way to learn Chinese in a few months. Nonetheless, in Chinese, just like any other language, there are no shortcuts. It’s true that some ways of learning are more efficient than others, but learning Chinese only through pinyin is certainly not the way to go.

While pinyin is very useful in the beginning, it’s problem resides in the phonetics of mandarin. As opposed to in Western languages, words are fairly short in Chinese (normally 1 or 2 syllables) and there are relatively few possible sounds (somewhat more than 400 syllables). Combine this with the fact that in the beginning, the majority of students have trouble differentiating certain sounds and above all the tones, it’s very common for students to quickly feel like everything sounds the same.

The basic unit of Chinese is the character, which represents meaning and not sound. It’s very common to run into characters with very different meanings with exactly the same sound (or very similar sounds). In addition, the formation of new concepts is carried out by combining characters. In other words, the logic of Chinese is found in characters and not in sound.

As opposed to small children who learn through imitation, we adults mainly learn through association, in other words, by using logic. That means that if you overlook the basic unit of the language (the character), it will be impossible for you to learn through association and you will have to limit yourself to imitation, which is very difficult for adults.

To put things simply, people who decide to not study writing make much faster initial progress by omitting one of the most difficult parts. However, their learning quickly comes to a standstill as learning new vocabulary becomes more difficult every day. Many words appear to be the same and completely meaningless.

On the contrary, for people who include characters in their study program, their initial progress is slow, tedious and at times frustrating. Nonetheless, their learning progressively accelerates and incorporating new vocabulary becomes increasingly simple.

If you truly want to learn Chinese and not a couple of sentences to survive, you have no other choice but to learn its writing as well.

chinese character

2. Learning the most commonly-used 3,000 characters

One of the most prevalent urban legends surrounding learning Chinese says that by learning the most frequent 3,000 characters, you can read 99% of texts in Chinese.

It’s true that the 3,000 most common characters cover 99% of texts in Chinese. Nonetheless, knowing them is not the same thing as being capable of understanding a text. In modern Chinese, the majority of words are formed of the union of at least two characters. While individual characters have a meaning in themselves, when they are combined to create a word, their meaning, although it tends to be related, is not always easy to guess.

Basically, learning the most common 3,000 characters, despite being an excellent memorization challenge, is probably the most frustrating and inefficient way to learn Chinese, as it won’t let you read or speak.

There are numerous frequency of use lists based on words and not characters (such as the HSK lists) that are definitely more useful.

learning chinese

3. Learning Chinese because it’s the most spoken language in the world

Learning a new language takes a lot of effort and continuous motivation over a long period of time, especially if it’s a language as different as Chinese. Because of this, before starting to learn a language, you have to be clear about the goal that you are pursuing and create a detailed plan of how you are going to reach this goal.

When people come to my academy and ask me about Chinese lessons, the first thing that I tend to ask them is why they want to learn Chinese. An answer that I often receive is: I want to learn Chinese because it’s the most spoken language in the world. When I hear this answer, I usually tell them how much time and effort they will have to dedicate to studying Chinese if they want to be able to effectively communicate. The majority of them never come back.

This student profile is the main target of “miracle courses”, as in my opinion, they don’t have the adequate motivation to learn the language. Their interest is mainly the result of a passing trend that has been brought into the spotlight by China’s economic power. Because of this, the only thing that they are looking for is for someone to tell them that they can learn Chinese without making an effort.

It is essential that before learning Chinese, you ask yourself what you want to do and what you will achieve by doing so. The more specific your objective, the easier it will be to keep up your motivation over time. Below, I give a few examples of concrete goals:

  1. Learning Chinese to be able to communicate with clients or suppliers from the country and by doing so improving your job prospects.
  2. Learning Chinese to go to China to study a master’s degree or an exchange during the following year.
  3. Learning Chinese because you have a spouse or family member from the country and want to demonstrate your interest in their culture and language.

Like these, there are thousands of good reasons to learn Chinese, but studying must be highly motivated and contain a “reward” for the efforts made. If you’re not going to use the language at all, what point is there in learning it?

Learning Chinese is much more than learning a language; it’s a doorway to understanding a thousand-year-old culture and society that at times isn’t as different as we think it is. Making yourself the habit of studying and giving yourself the right motivation will be your best ally in overcoming the numerous obstacles and frustrations that you will encounter.

chinese writing

4. Believing that because you’ve learned other languages, you know how to learn Chinese

Something that I often run into is people who want to study Chinese and the first thing that they say is that they already speak a couple of languages.

People who already master multiple Western languages mistakenly believe that they can apply their experience with these languages when learning Mandarin. While it’s true that they are at an advantage compared to a monolingual person, as they already know the efforts implied by learning a new language, it’s also true that they are more likely to commit mistakes in the learning process.

Despite coming from different linguistic branches, Western languages have common roots and have influenced one another a great deal over history. This makes it so that their logic and above all grammatical structure are very similar. The origins of Chinese and other Asian languages are very distant from that of Western languages, because of which it is a mistake to approach them with the same logic as in studying much more similar languages.

The common problem among students who speak multiple Western languages is that they try to apply their language structure to Chinese, and over time become frustrated. In the end, they end up saying that Chinese is illogical and impossible to learn.

Chinese has its own logic that is simply very different from yours, because of which the best thing to do is to forget everything you think you know and to try to completely immerse yourself in a different way of communicating.

Learning chinese

5. Spending too much effort on pronunciation and grammar

Don’t get me wrong: grammar and pronunciation are very important in Chinese, but they aren’t everything.

Tones and pronunciation in Mandarin tend to be a headache for many students. Pronunciation errors can be one of the main barriers to being understood by a native speaker. In addition, for many students, Chinese grammatical structures appear confusing and “unnatural” to them, because they are very different from those of their native language.

Because of this, it’s common for people to end up speaking endlessly in a zealous attempt to pronounce every tone perfectly and to place every word in its correct place. The problem with this attitude is that the person listening ends up not understanding anything.

Chinese is a language in which the context where a word is pronounced is very important for understanding its meaning. When speech isn’t fluid, in addition to becoming tedious for the listener, the context is also lost. The problem is that if the listener loses the context, they won’t understand anything.

Forget about speaking perfectly; as a non-native speaker, you can’t set your sights on impeccable pronunciation and not making grammar mistakes. Improving the fluidity of your speech will certainly give you better results than avoiding a couple of mistakes. Keep in mind that what’s important is communicating.

Bio BIO: Sergi worked in Beijing for five years and China changed his life. Upon returning home, he left his job as a researcher to dedicate his time to sharing what he learned in the Middle Kingdom. He is currently the editor of the website Sapore Di Cina, intended for people who would like to go to China to live or travel, and is the co-founder of EsChina Space, a Chinese language and cuisine academy in Barcelona.
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