Is Chinese grammar difficult?

The Mandarin Chinese language is considered one of the hardest languages in the world for many reasons. Mostly, what puts off the potential students is the Chinese writing system, which consists of 汉字 hànzì – the Chinese characters. In some sources, you might read that each character is a word, but a better way to phrase it would be that one character is one syllable. Either way – there is no alphabet. Moreover, there are 5 tones in Mandarin Chinese, so depending on how you stress your syllable, you might end up saying something that makes no sense, or worse. To make things harder, some characters can be read in two or even three different ways – in a different tone or using a completely different pronunciation.

However, there is also an aspect that is quite easy and beginner-friendly for the students of the Mandarin Chinese language. That thing is… the Chinese grammar. The Mandarin Chinese grammar might get bit tricky for intermediated and advanced students, but if you are a beginner, there is nothing to fear about it. Below, you will read about 5 things, which make Chinese grammar easier than you would think.

No verb conjugation needed!

Are you fed up with learning verbs conjugation for English, Spanish or Polish? Learning Mandarin might be just for you then – no conjugation required. Chinese verbs stay the same for all the pronouns and all the tenses (we will talk about tenses in the last point by the way). For example, let’s take the character 去 – “to go”:

I go:

(I) + 去 (go) = 我wǒ qù

I went:

(I) + 去 (go) + 了le (a particle often used for past actions) = 我去了wǒ qù le

You go:

(you) + 去 (go) = 你 nǐ qù

You went:

(you) + 去 (go) + 了le (a particle often used for past actions) = 你nǐ qù le

They go:

他们 tāmen (they) + 去 (go) = 他们tāmen qù

They went:

他们 tāmen (they) + 去 (go) + 了le (a particle often used for past actions) = 他们tāmen qù le

As you can see, it’s simple – the verb didn’t change throughout all the sentences!

S-V-O sentence structure

If you speak Korean or Japanese, you might think that Chinese also follows the S-O-V (subject-object-verb) sentence pattern. Wrong – in fact, Chinese sentences follow the S-V-O (subject-verb-object) pattern, which makes it similar to lots of Western languages, such as English or French. If you speak any of those languages, you might find this part of Chinese grammar familiar and convenient, as there is no need to think a lot where to put the object and the verb. For example:

+ 去 + 商店 shāngdiàn = 我去商店. Wǒ qù shāngdiàn.

I + to go + shop = I go to the shop.

+ 是 shì + 美国人měiguórén = 我是美国人. Wǒ shì měiguórén.

I + to be + American (person) = I am American.

Particles do wonders

To make questions, suggestions or even to highlight a declarative sentence in Chinese, there is no need for inversion, fancy words or structures. Simply use the right particle at the end on the sentence! Here are two examples of the most frequently used particles:

ma – for making questions

You are American: 你是美国人. Nǐ shì měiguórén.

Are you American?: 你是美国人Nǐ shì měiguórén ma?

ba – for making assumptions or suggestions:

You are American: 你是美国人. Nǐ shì měiguórén.

Are you American, right?: 你是美国人Nǐ shì měiguórén ba?

We go to the shop. 我们去商店. Wǒmen qù shāngdiàn.

Let’s go to the shop. 我们去商店. Wǒmen qù shāngdiàn ba.

The Magic of making new words – prefixes and suffixes

In Mandarin Chinese, making new words can be quite intuitive if you know the necessary prefixes and suffixes. For example, a suffix xìng added to a noun or a verb is used to express quality, property or scope of something. For example:

Science: 科学kēxué

Scientific: 科学kēxuéxìng

To spring, to leap: 弹 tán

Elasticity: 弹 tánxìng

Logic: 理

Logical: 理xìng

As an example of a prefix, let’s use 反 fǎn – meaning reverse, “anti-“:

Virus: 病毒 bìngdú

Antivirus: 病毒 fǎnbìngdú

Corruption: 腐

Anti-corruption: fǎn

To feel: 感 gǎn

To dislike: fǎngǎn

No tenses…?

In the terms of grammar structures, Mandarin Chinese has only got the present tense – there is no verb conjugation indicating a past or a future action. Therefore, it is often said that the Chinese language has no tenses. It is partially true, however there are words you can use in a sentence to express that something happened in the past or is about to happen in the future. One of the obvious choices is to simply indicate the time of the action, like “yesterday”, “tomorrow”, “last year”, “next year”, etc. Having said that, it is true that no conjugation is needed for past and future actions – if you look at tenses this way, then it is true that Chinese has no tenses. Yay!

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