3 Mistakes Chinese People Make When Speaking Mandarin

What Mistakes Do Chinese People Make When Speaking Mandarin?

A few years ago I saw a post on an online discussion forum asking “what mistakes do Chinese people make when speaking Mandarin?” I thought this was a legitimate question to ask but lots of members on that forum didn’t think so. Instead of getting answers, the person only received comments about how it is not possible for a native speaker to make mistakes.

I’m not going to get into a discussion about descriptive vs prescriptive linguistics here. Let’s accept the argument that a native speaker cannot make a “mistake” in their native language. With that given, we still have to remember that hundreds of millions of Chinese people are not actually native speakers of Mandarin. They are native speakers of their dialects, some of which are as different from Mandarin as Romanian is from Spanish.

Another thing to consider is that the person asking the question was maybe asking about sociolect. Perhaps they wanted to know what types of language usage are associated (rightly or wrongly) with people of lower education or social status. Either way, I do think the person was asking a legitimate question about linguistic variation, but perhaps just worded it in a way that some people didn’t like. With this in mind, I will look at examples of three types of “mistakes” that Chinese people commonly make when speaking Mandarin.

1. Grammatical

Since Mandarin is almost completely devoid of morphology, most Chinese grammar is basically syntax. To put it another way, the words in Chinese don’t change to show things like tense and aspect, but the order of words is important. The correct ordering of words is also something that many speakers, influenced by dialect, get wrong.

A few years ago when I was living in the Cantonese speaking city of Guangzhou I was at the market buying some oranges. After the friendly woman at the fruit stall priced up my bag of oranges she picked up an extra one and put it in the bag whilst saying (in Mandarin) 给多一个你 (give an extra one you).

Chinese vegetable market

What she wanted to say was “(I’ll) give you an extra one”. In Mandarin this would be as follows

给 你 多 一个 gěi nǐ dūo yí gè

Give you extra one

As you can see, in Mandarin the word 给 (give) takes two objects, just like it does in English. Like English, the first object 你 (you) is the recipient of the giving, and the second object 多一个 (extra one) is the thing being given. However, the word order in Cantonese is different to English and Mandarin. The thing being given is the first object and the recipient is the second.

给 多 一个 你 gěi dūo yí gè nǐ

Give extra one you

Basically the woman had used Mandarin vocabulary and pronunciation with Cantonese grammar. This syntactic error, where the two objects of the verb are the wrong way round, is common among Cantonese speakers when they are speaking Mandarin.

2. Lexical

After studying at Zhejiang University I found myself (as most students do) short of money. Luckily it wasn’t too difficult to find a part time job for the summer. I ended up teaching English to children in a so called “summer camp” in the small town of Fuyang, Zhejiang province. In reality this summer camp was just an extra two weeks of school that the kids did instead of having a holiday.

One evening I went with some colleagues to a local tea shop run by an old lady. She was very helpful, asking us (in Mandarin) 你要吃什么茶? nǐ yào chī shén me chá (what tea do you want to eat?) She then kindly recommended best (and most expensive) teas to us by pointing at the menu and saying 这个茶好吃 zhè gè chá hǎo chī (this tea is good to eat).

I was a bit confused. Were we expected to eat tea leaves? I just wanted to have a drink. As it turned out, this is a common lexical error amongst Wu dialect speakers in Zhejiang and Jiangsu province. The Wu dialect does not distinguish between 吃 (eat) and 喝 (drink). What they have is a single verb that can perhaps be better translated as the English delexicalised verb “have” (as in “have a drink” or “have something to eat”.

Basically, the woman in the tea shop gave the Mandarin word 吃 the same collocational range as an equivalent Wu-dialect word, when in fact the use of 吃 in Mandarin is more restricted. This particular error is very common amongst speakers of the Wu dialect, but is only one of many examples where Mandarin vocabulary items are not used correctly by Wu dialect speakers.

3. Phonological

This is perhaps the most controversial of all the “mistakes” because people are particularly sensitive to pronunciation. Pronunciation, far more than grammar and vocabulary, is seen as part of our identity. Standard Mandarin phonology is based on the Beijing dialect but many Chinese people will refuse to pronounce words the way they are taught at school (yes, Chinese people are taught Mandarin pronunciation in Chinese classes at school).

If you’ve ever visited the north of China you will have probably noticed the over-use of 儿化 (er hua, adding an extra retroflex “er” to the end of words). If you’ve ever visited the south you will probably have noticed the opposite; they don’t pronounce the retroflex sounds, regularly replacing (among others) the pinyin “sh” with “s”. It’s difficult to see these as mistakes since most speakers are consciously aware of them as features of their speech. In fact, many speakers deliberately retain these phonological features as part of their identity. Basically, something isn’t really a “mistake” if you know you’re doing it and definitely isn’t a “mistake” if you do it intentionally.

However, when I was first learning Mandarin in the city of Wuhan, where people speak a variant of the Southern Mandarin dialect, I made a friend who decided to help me with my study. The problem was that she, like Many speakers of Southern Mandarin dialects, couldn’t tell the difference between the sounds “l” in light and “n” in night. This was problematic because standard Mandarin does distinguish these sounds, like in the words 里 and 你 . The result was that I was sometimes given upside down help.

Wuhan is famous for re gan mian

The really interesting thing is that although she could say the the difference (with a bit of effort), she often wasn’t sure of which one was the correct Mandarin pronunciation. One time the friend actually told me a word began with “l” and wrote the pinyin down incorrectly (it began with “n”). This seems particularly strange when we consider that “l” was a sound she actually didn’t usually pronounce.

I noticed a similar mistake one time when buying a bowl of 热干面 rè gān miàn (hot dry noodles) in a little noodle shop. The price was 4 RMB (this was a long time ago) and the woman in the noodle shop, trying to put on her best Mandarin pronunciation for the foreigner, said “shì kuài qián“ when in fact they wanted to say “ kuài qián” 四块钱. Again, the really interesting thing is that in Wuhan people usually struggle to say the “sh” sound and say “s” instead. Here she was not only saying “sh”, she was saying it when she should have said “s”.

What’s happening here? I think that in both cases they were trying to speak standard Mandarin for me but over-compensated for the sounds that don’t exist in their dialect and ended up over using them. Although in my experience this is not very common, it definitely counts as a mistake.

Want to know more?

Click here to read more about Chinese dialects

Click here to find out what “give an upside down help” means