Do you Agree With This Important Rule For Language Learning?

To learn a language well, you need to change your attitude towards “translating”

I had been in China for a couple of months when a colleague of mine who had a fetish for buying electronic pocket dictionaries took me to the computer market to buy one. This was of course in the days before smartphones, which should give you an idea of just how long I’ve been in the Middle Kingdom.

I’d picked out a cheap dictionary that looked like it would do the job and I was ready to go.  My colleague had been practising his Mandarin by chewing the ear off one of the girls working at the computer market, so she looked kind of relived as he said

现在我们要去 xiàn zài wǒ men yào qù (now we will go)

It was clear from context that what my friend wanted to say was “we’re gonna go now”. Grammatically he had formed a perfect sentence; he had put the adverb of time (now, xiàn zài) at the start of the sentence when English speakers might be tempted to put it at the end. He also followed the correct subject – verb – object sentence structure.

The problem was that, in this context, xiàn zài wǒ men yào qù is just not what Chinese people say. Both as a language teacher and as a language student I have repeatedly stressed that the question “how do I say this in Chinese?” is often not at all useful. What you should be asking is “what do native Chinese speakers say in this situation?”.


It turns out that, when indicating that they have to leave, Chinese people say 我要走 yào zǒu (I will walk) and if you want to say “let’s go” to your friend you need to say 我们走吧 wǒ men zǒu ba (literally “we walk” but with the particle 吧ba softening the tone so that it sounds less like and order and more like a suggestion).

If you’re talking to someone and want to indicate that you’re going now (but not necessarily that you have to) you can also say 我先走 xiān zǒu (I first go). In fact, this is probably the best translation for what my colleague wanted to say. In a situation like the one described above you could say 好,我们先走,再见 hǎo, wǒ men xiān zǒu, zài jiàn. This literally translates as “good, we first go, again see” but is basically like saying “okay, we’re gonna go now, see you”.