Sometimes it’s not just the grammar that’s different, it’s the way of thinking too. This can lead to all sorts of basic mistakes when speaking Mandarin. Here are my top five.
Greeting people backwards
In English we usually say the greeting followed by the person’s name. In Chinese they first address the person by saying their name and then give the greeting. Imagine you’re greeting your Chinese teacher Mr. Chen as you walk into morning class. In English you might say “good morning Mr. Chen!” But in Chinese you need to say chén lǎo shī, zǎo shàng hǎo! 陈老师，早上好! (Mr. Chen, good morning!)
I really love this example because in Chinese a person’s title comes after their name, not before it, and although zǎo shàng hǎo means “good morning” it is actually the word for “morning” followed by the word for “good”. This means a word for word translation of the Chinese chén lǎo shī, zǎo shàng hǎo is actually like the English has been put in reverse. The English greeting “good morning Mr. Chen!” becomes “Chen Mr. morning good”. I love it when two languages couldn’t be more different. Unfortunately old habits can be difficult to get rid of, so make sure you don’t make the mistake of saying nǐ hǎo chén lǎo shī or zài jiàn chén lǎo shī because what you actually need to say in chén lǎo shī, nǐ hǎo (Mr. Chen, hello!) and chén lǎo shī, zài jiàn (Mr. Chen, Goodbye!)
Asking people about how they’ve been
When leaning a foreign language I often think it’s best to not ask questions like “how can I say this in Chinese?” but instead ask “what does a native speaker say in this situation?” The answers can be quite different. One good example is when Chinese people greet someone in English by asking “have you eaten?” It’s grammatically correct, but just not what a native speaker says. Many native English speakers make the same mistake speaking Chinese. They try to greet someone by asking “how are you?” and end up asking nǐ hǎo ma which doesn’t even really make sense in Chinese. Slightly better is the phrase nǐ hái hǎo ma but this is not a greeting. You only say nǐ hái hǎo ma when you know someone has been ill, has been in an accident or had a problem and you want to know if they are okay. If you want to greet someone in a perfunctory way it’s probably best to just say chī fàn le ma? 吃饭了吗 (have you eaten?) And if you really want to ask someone how they’ve been you can ask zuì jìn zěn me yàng 最近怎么样.
Putting the negative in the other place
When there is a choice between attaching the negative to a verb or an adjective English speakers usually prefer to make the verb negative. Consider how you would usually say “this doesn’t taste good” as opposed to “this tastes not good”. Similarly, if your friend asks you what you thought of a documentary you will probably say “I didn’t think it was very good” rather than “I thought it was not good”. It’s not wrong to attach the negative to the adjective, but it just sounds a bit more natural the other way round.
Mandarin is the opposite, Chinese people will normally say wǒ jué de bù hǎo chī 我觉得不好吃 (I think not tasty) instead of wǒ bù jué de hǎo chī (I not think tasty). Saying wǒ bù jué (I don’t think) isn’t wrong in Chinese, but Chinese people just don’t really say it. Another example is the English sentence “this piece of cake doesn’t look tasty.” In Chinese you would need to say zhè kuài dàn gāo kàn qǐ lái bù hǎo chī 这块蛋糕看起来不好吃 (this piece of cake looks not tasty). If you were to say zhè kuài dàn gāo bù kàn qǐ lái hǎo chī it would sound really weird. So don’t say it. Put the negative before the adjective, not the verb. (There is an exception to this rule, but I don’t want this post to drag on so I will explain in the comments section below.)
Being too polite
Love it or hate it, Chinese lacks a lot of the politeness that English has. If you walk into Starbucks in Britain and bluntly say “give me a cappuccino” people might think you’re a little bit of a twat. However, in China using the imperative in a request is fine. gěi wǒ yī bēi kǎ bù 给我一杯卡布 (give me one cappuccino) is perfectly acceptable, but even that is quite a lot to say when you could just say yī bēi kǎ bù (one cappuccino). Then again, why not simply walk in and say kǎ bù (cappuccino)? All of the above are perfectly acceptable ways of ordering a coffee. One way that Chinese people don’t order a coffee is by saying “excuse me, can I have a cappuccino” and so, despite the temptation to be polite, English speakers really need to avoid saying things like qǐng wèn, néng bù néng gěi wǒ yī bēi kǎ bù because not only will you sound a bit stupid, but it’s also quite likely that someone else will have pushed in front of you and shouted yī bēi kǎ bù! Before you’ve had time to finish your sentence. It’s not just a politeness thing, English speakers often use lots of words and long sentences when a Chinese speaker would normally just say one or two words.
Using too many pronouns
Following on from the last point, one way to easily make sentences shorter and more “Chinese” sounding is to just drop the pronouns. And while you’re at it, drop the subject too! A lot of languages like Japanese and Polish frequently drop subjects and pronouns so this is probably more a problem for English speakers. What makes Chinese a bit difficult is that a single sentence often sounds perfectly fine with or without pronouns, it’s only by consistently including them during a period of speaking that it begins to sound unnatural. At other times including pronouns even in just a single sentence can make it sound over-wordy and…well, just wrong.
For example, you hear a long word like “antidisestablishmentarianism” and in English you might say “that’s a long word! How do you spell it?” but in Chinese it would sound more natural to drop the subject along with the following two pronouns and just say nà ma cháng! zěn me pīn? 那么长！怎么拼? (So long! How spell?) It would sound very strange to say nà shì gè hěn cháng de cí, nǐ zěn me pīn tā? So cut the subject and the pronouns out whenever you can and speak more efficiently. Like a Chinese person.