December 1, 2012 | Mandarin

Chinese Grammar from a Beginner’s Book

Lessons learned, through baby steps.

I began reading Beginner’s Chinese by Yong Ho on November 11, but quickly decided I needed to do more Pimsleur first. I do like the book, which was recommended by one of my readers, but it is one of the many, many foreign-language-study books where I think it is a hell of a lot easier to get something out of it if you have already mastered at least a tiny bit of the foreign language in question.

Beginner's Chinese, by Yong Ho

Beginner’s Chinese, by Yong Ho

I hate to admit this, but I am still only on lesson 24 of Chinese Pimsleur. That’s Level I. Glacial pace, people. I still have to do a lot of the lessons multiple times. But today I decided I had gotten far enough to return to the book and not be quite as daunted by the Chinese characters, grammar, and pronunciation.

The book begins with a quote from Jim Rogers. “If the 19th century belonged to Britain, and the 20th century to the United States, then the 21st century will surely belong to China. My advice: Make sure your kids learn Chinese.”

I heard him say the same thing some years ago, in a talk he gave here in New York City. I was a little skeptical at the time, in part because I found it so hard to imagine many Americans doing that, but his comments made quite an impression on me personally and made me more interested in studying Chinese.

I just didn’t happen to do anything about it before now.

Yong Ho points out in his book, “There are more people in the world speaking Chinese than English or any other language.”

Seven figures worth! No one else can say that.

Ho also notes, “The ability to speak and write Chinese goes a long way to the understanding of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, the exchanging of ideas with its people, and the conducting of business in or with China.”

Chinese comes from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Unfortunately, I’m not too good at remembering the language families; I tend to do better with grammatical details than global language charts. This shortcoming is a source of embarrassment to me.

“Many syntactic distinctions that are made in English are not made in Chinese,” Ho writes. “These include the distinctions between singular and plural (such as ‘book’ vs. ‘books’), between nominative case and objective case (such as ‘I’ vs. ‘me’), between first/second person and third person (such as ‘I speak’ vs. ‘he speaks’), between active voice and passive voice (such as ‘call’ vs. ‘be called’), between the positive degree and comparative degree (such as ‘pretty’ vs. ‘prettier’), between past time and present time (such as ‘I was a teacher’ vs. ‘I am a teacher’). 

Much of that I have already noticed in my Pimsleur lessons. And I have been grateful.

When I read a sentence like that, though, my mind is boggled. It just does not seem possible that taking away all those distinctions could work out.

The evidence of a billion-plus people suggests it does, but it’s still hard to imagine.

Reading that quotation, I feel as though I, as a Chinese language learner, should just be able to pull out a lawn chair and relax; it sounds as though my work is done here.

But in the meantime, I had to do lesson 23 of Pimsleur four times, so there must be some grammar involved somewhere!

I love Ho’s point about linguistic economy. He writes, “Chinese is so stingy with linguistic resources that it only allows one signal for one meaning. 

Chinatown Martial Arts & Fitness Center

Chinatown Martial Arts & Fitness Center

“In the English sentence ‘I have two books,’” he explains, “the plural meaning of the word ‘book’ is indicated by two signals: two and the suffix -s. This would not be economical to the Chinese people who would simply say (equivalent to English) ‘I have two book.’ Since two already specifies the quantity, why is it necessary to use another signal?”

I love economy of language.

When I taught writing at local colleges in the 1990s, I recall spending a lot of time marking missing noun and verb endings in my Chinese students’ papers. That is a very hard category of error for a native Chinese speaker learning English to fix.

I was in Manhattan’s Chinatown today, and while there, I stopped by the Chinatown Martial Arts & Fitness Center to ask about kung fu classes.

Alas, no kung fu. But a whole lot of karate!

Comments (2)

Shannon K • Posted on Sun, October 13, 2013 - 12:01 pm EST

Sound like an interesting book. I’m still only on the third lesson for Pimsleur Mandarin. I also have to go through the lessons about 3 times before I really feel ready to move on. I’ve been doing a bit of research to find out which grammar books/workbooks to get so you’re reviews have really been helpful. Once I get a little farther with Pimsleur I think I’ll check out Beginner’s Chinese by Yong Ho.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, October 13, 2013 - 12:11 pm EST

Yes, I liked that book. I thought it was constructed responsibly, with attention to how fast a solo learner might realistically be able to go. I feel as though a lot of materials I’ve encountered for Asian languages are written as though you happen to have a live-in teacher sitting right there next to you explaining everything as you go along. People accustomed to a Latin alphabet and to Germanic or Romance structures need a lot of handholding when it comes to languages such as Korean and Chinese!

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