The Most Common Misconceptions of Chinese by
Mandarin Learners

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Mandarin Chinese is definitely a foreign language for Westerners and even Easterners alike. But what are some of the most common misconceptions that Mandarin Chinese Learners have? We explore the top four below:

1. All Chinese People Speak Standard Mandarin Chinese

Not true! When Jack was traveling throughout China, even though he was an HSK Level 6 student, he couldn’t understand much of the conversation in the more rural provinces. Why? Because, in addition to Mandarin Chinese, there are many different “方言(fāngyán) dialects” spoken in China. Different Chinese dialects have different pronunciations. So, don’t be surprised if you can’t understand what Chinese people are saying on the street, even if you have passed the HSK 6!

If you’re not able to understand, chances are that these people are speaking a different dialect of Chinese. And yes, even Chinese people cannot understand each other if each is speaking his or her own dialect. Therefore, you’re not alone.

Local dialects will affect the Mandarin used in daily conversation.

Different Mandarin dialects have different pronunciations. Due to the influence of dialects, people from different provinces also have different accents even though they all speak standard Chinese. It’s similar to accents in the United States and the different vocabulary American regions have. There’s southern accents, Minnesota accents, New York accents, and many more. Many different people in America pronounce English differently. The same can be said about the differences spoken in China.

2. Textbook Mandarin Is Daily Mandarin Also not true! In many Mandarin textbooks it is written that people say the following to greet one another:

“你好吗? (Nǐ hǎo ma?)” = How are you?

“很高兴认识你! (Hěn gāoxìng rènshì nǐ!) = Nice to meet you!

In daily life people more often use the following phrase to greet one another:

“你吃了吗(Nǐ chī le ma)” = Have you eaten yet?

Or “早啊(Zǎo ā)!” = Morning! (if it’s morning).

Few Chinese speakers say “你好吗? (nǐ hǎo ma?) to greet friends. This is considered to be an unpractical phrase nowadays. Therefore, you need to make sure that the Mandarin you are learning is not coming solely from a textbook. Make sure that you include real-time lessons and hire a one-to-one Chinese tutor so you can be kept in the know of the daily Mandarin you will actually encounter on the street.

3. Just Learning Chinese Vocabulary Is Enough 

Totally wrong! Chinese isn’t learned just through memorization. Many students try to simply learn Chinese words by rote memory, and then simply put the words together to make sentences. To them, that’s good enough. Yes, vocabulary is very important and a basic foundation in Chinese learning. But it is definitely not enough to become fluent, or to be able to converse naturally with a native Mandarin speaker.

Learners also need to know how to use the words properly in daily conversation. This means that you also study the culture, and the correct time and place to use phrases and words for various social situations or occasions.

4. Think Chinese Grammar Is Mechanical 

No, Chinese is not the same as other languages, especially romantic languages, when it comes to grammar. It has its own rules, and its own exceptions to its own rules. Are there regular grammar patterns? Yes, but there are also many inconsistencies. When it comes to putting words together correctly, it is more improvisational than you might think.

Take these examples:

杯(bēi) cup + 子(zi) = 杯子(bēizi) cup.

筷(kuài) chopstick + 子(zi) = 筷子(kuàizi) chopsticks.

“子(zi)” used as the noun suffix here.

When some students learned the structure above, they usually want to apply the same pattern to another phrase, such as:

碗(wǎn) bowl + 子(zi)

However, “Noun + 子(zi)” is not a universal rule in Chinese. “碗子(wǎn zi)” is not the correct phrase. We do not have this expression, and so you have to go back to the drawing board and learn the correct grammar rules for that specific makeup of words.