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Lesson Transcript

Amber: Hey everybody. Welcome back to ChineseClass101.com. This is our All About Chinese series, Lesson 12. I’m Amber.
Victor: 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo), I’m Victor.
Amber: And today we’re going to talk about the top five mistakes not to make when speaking Chinese.
Victor: Very important ones to remember.
Amber: Yeah, now we don’t want anyone to get all gun-shy. But basically we’re taking my personal experience of embarrassing myself, making many mistakes in Chinese over many years.
Victor: Amber, I think these are really, really good lessons because, as a native speaker, sometimes I don’t think about it all the time. Yeah, these are very, very good stuff, so pay attention this lesson especially.

Lesson focus

Amber: Yeah, it’s common things for us as English speakers learning Chinese to get confused about and make mistakes with. So let’s just first tell you what the top five mistakes you don’t want to make are. What’s number one, Victor?
Victor: Number one is incorrect word order when forming questions.
Amber: Right, because often we’re just translating directly from English. And it’s not the way it’s said in Chinese.
Victor: It’s kind of like the opposite in Chinese.
Amber: Yeah, so we’ll go into that a little bit more in a minute. What’s the second mistake we don’t want to make?
Victor: It’s mixing up the past tense particles 了 (le) and 过 (guò).
Amber: Right. So past tense is not a huge deal in Chinese because they don’t conjugate verbs, but they do have these particles that do sometimes indicate that an action is complete, so we’ll teach you the difference between these two so you don’t make this mistake. The number three mistake is…
Victor: Mixing up the negators 不 (bù)and 没 (méi).
Amber: Yeah. So 不 (bù) is a lot more common, but 没 (méi) is also one that will make words negative. So we’ll teach you the difference. Number four…
Victor: Is using too many words in an attempt to be polite.
Amber: I love this one, it’s so great. Because this one’s very rooted in cultural things, don’t you think, Victor?
Victor: Right, right.
Amber: The difference between the language and the culture. And number five.
Victor: And it’s obsessing about having a standard accent instead of speaking. I would say, actually, it’s very common. I will say, for Chinese people who try to learn English, the teacher always emphasizes on how you should sound a certain way, but sometimes you forget it comes with practice.
Amber: Yeah, and you end up inhibiting yourself. And you end up slowing down your progress because you’re so scared to speak.
Victor: The more you do, the more you realize how the standard accent is.
Amber: Yeah, it will come. Ok, so let’s go back to the first one, Victor. Talking about word order for questions. So this mistake, I think, arises from using what I like to call Zhonglish, Victor.
Victor: Zhonglish.
Amber: Zhonglish is the Chinese learner’s equivalent to Chinglish. Have you heard of Chinglish?
Victor: I have.
Amber: It’s when English is translated directly from Chinese and it doesn’t make any sense in English. Well, we do that too when we’re trying to learn Chinese.
Victor: So Zhong is the word for Chinese in Chinese. That’s why it’s Zhonglish.
Amber: Yes, so we don’t want to have Zhonglish. We want to have Chinese or 中文 (zhōngwén), which is the real word for Chinese in Chinese. So let’s talk about the word order of questions in Chinese. In English, when we make a question, we always put the question word first. For example, let’s just take an English sentence, Victor, like “Where is my book”, right? “Where” is the question word and it always comes first in English. So let me try and say that in Chinese. If I was going to use some Zhonglish, maybe I would say 在哪里我的书 (zài nǎ lǐ wǒ de shū).
Victor: See, that is not the right way to say it in Chinese. 在哪里 (zài nǎ lǐ) is “where is”, 我的书 (wǒ de shū) is “my book”.
Amber: So I just directly translated from English that question. So I'm wrong. We cannot directly translate from English, at least not in this case. Some cases the word order is the same, but in questions, not at all. The question word is different location.
Victor: Right. So in Chinese you actually say 我的书在哪里 (wǒ de shū zài nǎ lǐ).
Amber: So remember he said that 在哪里 (zài nǎ lǐ) means…
Victor: Is “where”.
Amber: “Where” and 我的书 (wǒ de shū) was “my book”. So say it again, Victor.
Victor: 我的书在哪里 (wǒ de shū zài nǎ lǐ).
Amber: So it means almost the same, just a little switcheroo. The question word in Chinese questions comes at the end.
Victor: Right. 我的书在哪里 (wǒ de shū zài nǎ lǐ). “My book is where?”
Amber: Good. Ok, so maybe… let’s use a different question word so we can get it down, Victor. Let’s use one with the word for “who”. That question word. Can you give us a chinese sentence? Let’s think. What if we were going to say “Who is she?” So notice I just said “who”, the question word, at the beginning, “is she”. So let’s turn it into real Chinese. How would you say it?
Victor: So the word for “who” in Chinese is 谁 (sheí).
Amber: 谁 (sheí).
Victor: So we’re going to say “Who is she?”, you literally say “She is who?”
Amber: So easy.
Victor: So in Chinese it’ll be 她是谁?(tā shì sheí)
Amber: 她是谁?(tā shì sheí)
Victor: Correct.
Amber: So the 谁 (sheí) is the question word, comes at the end. “She is who?”
Victor: And 她 (tā) is “she”, “he” or “it” in Chinese. All sound the same. So 她 (tā) is “she” in this case and 她 (tā) is “is”. So 她是谁 (tā shì sheí), that’s “She is who?”
Amber: Good. Now let’s try one with the word “what”. The word for “what” in Chinese is what?
Victor: Is 什么 (shénme).
Amber: Ok, so let’s say our question is “What are you eating?” Let me first change it to Chinese English first to make it clear. I would probably say “you are eating what?” Ok, so how do you say it in Chinese?
Victor: And in Chinese it’ll be 你在吃什么? (nǐ zài chī shénme)
Amber: So remember we said the word for “what” was 什么 (shénme). And we heard it at the end. What was the beginning part, Victor?
Victor: 你 (nǐ).
Amber: Which means “you”.
Victor: 你在吃什么? (nǐ zài chī shénme)
Amber: Right. So 你在吃 (nǐ zài chī) means “you are eating” and the 什么 (shénme) comes at the end, which is “what”.
Victor: Right. And I think we should remind our listeners that we’re really not trying to teach you all these questions or these words right now, so if you feel a little stressed over all these new words, don’t worry. We’re just trying to make a point that…
Amber: It’s the principle.
Victor: Right. The question word always comes in the end in Chinese. You don’t have to remember all these words that we’re talking about.
Amber: But I think the important words we learned today we could review, which is the question words that we learned. The first one was “where”. How do we say “where” again, Victor?
Victor: To say “where” in Chinese, you can either say 哪里 (nǎ lǐ) or 哪儿 (nǎr).
Amber: Two choices.
Victor: Right. But it doesn’t really make too much of a difference.
Amber: Ok, and what’s the word for “who”?
Victor: 谁 (sheí).
Amber: 谁 (sheí). And the word for “what”?
Victor: 什么 (shénme).
Amber: Good. All good words to know. Now, onto mistake number two. This is about the past tense. We talked about two particles, right, Victor, that we can use to make the past tense in Chinese.
Victor: Very simple characters, but they really make a difference in the meanings.
Amber: So what are these particles?
Victor: They are 了 (le) and 过 (guò).
Amber: Yeah, and they’re particles that basically will just attach, they’ll come after a verb. They will tell us that an action took place already in the past. So it’s very common for people to get these mixed up, but today we’re going to tell you the difference. It’s very easy. So 了 (le) is used to show an action is complete. For example, Victor…
Victor: 我去了 (wǒ qù le).
Amber: 我 (wǒ) is “I”, 去 (qù) is “to go”, 我去了 (wǒ qù le) just shows the action is complete. It means “I went”, simple past.
Victor: Right. However, if you say 我去过 (wǒ qù guò).
Amber: So we just heard again 我 (wǒ) is the word for “I”, 去 (qù) is the word for “to go”, and then he added the particle 过 (guò). So what’s the difference? It actually means “I have been there before”.
Victor: Right. One is simple past, 了 (le).
Amber: Right, and the 过 (guò) is used to talk about an experience that you’ve had before in the past. Usually it’s not a specific event, rather it’s past experience.
Victor: Right. That’s a pretty simple explanation.
Amber: Yeah, and we’re not giving you every possible exception or situation here, but if you keep this in mind about these two particles, it will make things a lot clearer for you. It will help you avoid making this mistake.
Victor: And number three.
Amber: Mistake number three not to make is what?
Victor: Is 不 (bù) versus 没 (méi) to negate verbs.
Amber: Right. So in Chinese there are two ways to negate a verb.
Victor: One is 不 (bù), very common. And the other one is 没 (méi). We will put the 不 (bù) or the 没 (méi) in front of the verb to show it is negative.
Amber: And the things is people get confused to know when to use 不 (bù) and when to use 没 (méi).
Victor: Yes. Now, of course, there are exceptions, but we’ll give you a little hint that will help you get it straight.
Amber: Ok, so first the 不 (bù). 不 (bù) is used before the verb to negate the action for present, future, when talking about habitual things.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So give us an example, Victor, to make it clear.
Victor: Say, 我不吃 (wǒ bù chī).
Amber: That means “I don’t eat.” Right?
Victor: Right. I don’t eat something, something. Right.
Amber: Right. So let’s say, for example, if you invite me over for chicken feet…
Victor: One of my favorite.
Amber: I could say… And of course you would serve it, because you want to give me the best, but I would say 我不吃 (wǒ bù chī) chicken feet, sorry.
Victor: Exactly.
Amber: It means that this is my habit, that I really don’t eat chicken feet.
Victor: Right, so 我不吃 (wǒ bù chī) is “I don’t eat”. So it’s a habitual thing.
Amber: And if I was going to use future tense, which we won’t get into how to say that in Chinese, but I would also use 不 (bù). Or if I was just using present tense, “I'm not eating it now”, I would also use 不 (bù) for all these situation to say no. I’ll just say no to the chicken feet. Good. So, that’s 不 (bù). Now, what about 没 (méi). When do we use 没 (méi), Victor?
Victor: It negates verbs in the past tense.
Amber: So just like the 不 (bù), it comes before the verb, but you use it for describing an action that either did not happen or isn’t complete yet. And there are a couple other instances that we use 没 (méi), but we won’t get into it now, cause they’re just small exceptions. We’ll just keep it simple. So back to our example, if 我不吃 (wǒ bù chī) means “I don’t eat”, 我不吃 (wǒ bù chī) chicken feet”, can we make the same sentence with 没 (méi), Victor?
Victor: You can say 我没吃 (wǒ méi chī).
Amber: Ok, so you can do it. But what is the difference in meaning? The difference here is if you use 没 (méi) it means “I didn’t eat it”.
Victor: Correct. 我没吃 (wǒ méi chī).
Amber: Right. So for example, I went to your house, someone knew that you loved chicken feet, Victor, they knew you would serve it to me. So maybe they’ll ask me, “Did you eat Victor’s special secret recipe chicken feet?” And then I would be like, “Oh, 我没吃 (wǒ méi chī).” So that’s the difference.
Victor: 我没吃 (wǒ méi chī). But you should really try them, you know.
Amber: I know, I know. But just for the sake of example, a real life… actually this would happen as well, but I would say, 我没吃 (wǒ méi chī). So you can see the difference. 我不吃 (wǒ bù chī) is “I don’t eat them” or “Right now, I won’t in the future”. But the difference is if you say 我没吃 (wǒ méi chī) it’s talking about something that already happened. “I didn’t eat them”.
Victor: Right. “I did not eat it.”
Amber: Very good. So, ok, Victor, how about another example, just to make it clear.
Victor: So here is another example. I will say the Chinese and you answer with English, Amber. Ok, I know lots of people are shy when they go to sing karaoke, so they will say 我不唱 (wǒ bù chàng).
Amber: This isn’t me, I'm not shy at all, Victor. I always sing. I'm a microphone hog.
Victor: We can pretend for the sake of the listeners.
Amber: Ok, so 唱 (chàng) is the verb for “to sing”, right? And then 我 (wǒ) was “I”. 不 (bù) is the negative word. “I don’t sing”.
Victor: So 我不唱 (wǒ bù chàng).
Amber: So “I don’t sing.”
Victor: Yes. 我不唱 (wǒ bù chàng). Now the other scenario is you went to karaoke but you did not sing.
Amber: That would never happen, Victor.
Victor: Once again, 我没唱 (wǒ méi chàng).
Amber: Ok, so this is when we use 没 (méi) is when we say “I didn’t sing that day” or “last night”, in the past. 我没唱 (wǒ méi chàng). That makes sense.
Victor: That makes sense. Although in reality would never happen.
Amber: Yes.
Victor: But for this situation only, 我没唱 (wǒ méi chàng).
Amber: Exactly. So don’t be alarmed everybody if this sounds a little bit above your level. It’s just a principle, again, to keep in mind, so that when it appears, when you’re confronted with it in your studies, you will think back, you will flash back to Amber telling lies about how she doesn’t sing at karaoke.
Victor: So the difference between 不 (bù) and 没 (méi).
Amber: Ok. So next one, next mistake.
Victor: That’ll be using too many words.
Amber: Yes, I think this could have been my problem since I never shut up.
Victor: I think in English you sometimes do say a lot of things, try to put a light to get a meaning across.
Amber: That’s true. I think that the thing is we have good intentions as Chinese learners because we’re attempting to be polite and translate what would be appropriate in that situation in our language, right? But in Chinese, people will just be confused.
Victor: Right. Chinese tend to say things a lot more direct.
Amber: So to illustrate this, think about how a beginner Chinese student of English will speak. A lot of times, if we’ve ever been Chinese people learning English as a second language, their English is very brief. For example, maybe they’ll just say “You go store”, right?
Victor: Right.
Amber: It’s a direct translation from Chinese so we just have to remember that when we’re translating from English to Chinese. You can cut out all of the extra words and basically how would you say “go to the store” in Chinese.
Victor: You just say 你去商店 (nǐ qù shāngdiàn).
Amber: Right. You can say a lot with a little in Chinese.
Victor: “You go to store.”
Amber: You don’t have to be like a Canadian and be like, “Oh, I'm so sorry, would you mind, please, going to the store for me?” Do not try to say that in Chinese. People probably get really confused.
Victor: Yeah, we’ll probably get really confused if you try to directly translate all that into Chinese.
Amber: Just be direct. It’s totally fine. It does not sound rude in Chinese. Now, another common mistake. What was the next one?
Victor: It’s getting so afraid about having a standard accent or the right tones that you’re afraid to speak.
Amber: And this is a very important point because it’s true, you might not have the right tones or the standard accent, but the problem is if you don’t speak, you are never going to get the right tones or standard accent.
Victor: Right. It’s more for an emotional or psychological effect.
Amber: Yes, you have to get over the psychological reasons. Come to therapy with Victor and Amber and you will be ok.
Victor: Just keep on speaking. It’s totally fine.
Amber: And the thing is don’t get worried. Victor, if you get a tone wrong, is it a big deal?
Victor: It’s really not, especially when you are speaking in the context. People will know what you’re talking about.
Amber: And then the thing is, just spit it out, try and get it out there. If you get a blank look, there’s always charades. It’s not going to be the worst thing.
Victor: Right. If something happens, make a laugh out of it. And I think that it’s good to know that it happens to everyone, not just people who learn Chinese. This happens to Chinese people who learn English and all sorts of things.
Amber: Yes. It’s only natural we’re self-conscious, but the thing is… one thing I find about Chinese people, maybe it’s because of the tones, but when you say something and you say it wrong, once maybe you have to act it out or whatever, but once the person gets what you’re saying, they will often say it back to you correctly. And this is a way to sort of auto-tune your ear because you will hear them say it right and then you can try and say it again by imitating them.
Victor: Definitely.


Amber: Anyway, the key is learning a new language keeps you humble, which is good for all of us, right Victor?
Victor: Definitely.
Amber: So stop being so worried about it all.
Victor: Right. So those are the top five mistakes to avoid and that should get you on the right track.
Amber: Yeah. And that’s it for our lesson today, All About Chinese Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid.


Please to leave a comment.
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ChineseClass101.com Verified
Friday at 06:30 PM
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Hi everyone, Please feel free to share your learning experiences too and we'll all benefit! amber :)

ChineseClass101.com Verified
Tuesday at 01:39 PM
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Hello Maria,

Thank you for your comment. 在 zài has many functions and meanings.

"Nǐ zài chī shénme?", 在 zài in this sentence is the progressive marker, it indicates something is happening.

You may check out this lesson: https://www.chineseclass101.com/lesson/learn-chinese-in-three-minutes-18-what-are-you-going-to-do/

"Wǒ de shū zài nǎr?", 在 zài in this sentence is a preposition, it means "at (location)".

You may check out this lesson: https://www.chineseclass101.com/lesson/learn-chinese-in-three-minutes-12-where-are-you/

Let us know if you have any questions.


Team ChineseClass101.com

Monday at 12:38 AM
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question: Why is it "Nǐ zài chī shénme?" and not "Nǐ chī shénme?" if asking "What are you eating?". Or "Wǒ de shū zài nǎr?" I don't understand the use of 在

Team ChineseClass101.com
Thursday at 11:39 PM
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Hi, Anita,

Thank you for your posting.

I'm glad it makes sense to you.

If you have any question, please let us know.


Team ChineseClass101.com

Thursday at 10:48 PM
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That was really helpful showing the difference between bu4 and mei2 (sorry ... I don't have a pinyin keyboard on my computer).

Team ChineseClass101.com
Monday at 01:11 AM
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Hi tristan,

You can use them that way, you can say “wo mei chi nage", "wo bu xihuan zhege".



Team ChineseClass101.com

Tuesday at 11:34 AM
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when i want to express the direct object as zhege or nage can i use it in most casses such as "wo mei chi naga" or "wo bu xihuan zhe"?

ChineseClass101.com Verified
Wednesday at 04:31 PM
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Hi Margareth,

Mei and bu can be used together with most verbs in Chinese. Yes, mei is usually used to indicate the past tense, and when it is used together with you, it's for possession.

You can try to practice them with other common verbs like qu4, lai2, gong1zuo4, shui4jiao4 etc. Practice makes perfect :)


Team ChineseClass101.com

Tuesday at 07:47 PM
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Okay, so basically "mei" constantly combined with "you" as negative sentence, right? This is for past tense and possession, isn't?

Whilst "bu" will be used to in present negation and combined with adjective.

Thank you so much for other details such as the usage of le and what kind of verb used with bu. But I think, I need to understand it while practising it simultaneously. It will be easier to absorb, for me...

Hehe. Xie xie ^^

ChineseClass101.com Verified
Tuesday at 11:53 AM
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Hi Margareth,

Exactly like Jo said, and with one more tip: you never want to use "le" in a sentence which has "mei".


Team ChineseClass101.com

chineseclass101.com Verified
Monday at 05:54 PM
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Hi Margareth,

Thank you for your message and we're happy that you're enjoying it!

For "bu" and "mei", remember the following rules:

1."mei (you) + action" is to negate an action in the past. It means something didn’t happen. (e.g. wo mei chi mi fan/I didn't eat rice)

2. "bu + action" is to negate action in the present or in the future. (e.g. wo bu chi mi fan/I don't eat rice or I will not eat rice)

3 "mei (you) + noun" negates the possession. It means someone does not have something. (e.g. wo mei haizi/I don't have any children)

4. "bu + adj." is to say something is not "adj". (e.g. ta bu piaoliang, tianqi bu hao/she is not beautiful, the weather is not good)

5. for some certain verbs related with the mind such as "think", "wish", "hope", etc. we use "bu" to negate, no matter what the tense is. (e.g. ni bu xihuan pijiu, wo bu xiang qu/you don't like beer, I don't want to go)

The only exception to this is that for the verb "you" (to have) we always use "mei" and not "bu". So even in the future we may use "mei" only if it is with "you" or to mean "don't have". (e.g. wo mingtian mei you shijian/I don't have time tomorrow)

I hope that answers your question :)


Team chineseclass101.com