Chinese grammar more important in being understood

Yes, and for a learner, it is NOT always possible to hear everything, even though you think you are.

About ten years into my Chinese experience (and having lived in Taiwan for awhile as well) I was in a taxi with another foreign friend (one who was uber-fluent, truly uber-fluent, in Mandarin.) I said something to the cab driver; he repeated something back to me. I didn’t realize that what he had repeated back was actually a correction of what I’d said to him (wrong). My friend asked me just then, “Didn’t you hear him correct you?” And the sad thing was, I had not heard. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to hear, or didn’t care – I simply was not at the point of acquisition (that is, I hadn’t solidly enough acquired the elements that are “lower down” on the structure of the language overall, like the foundation of the pyramid, if you will) to be able to pay attention to the finer point he was demonstrating correctly.

And that makes sense, given the idea that language acquisition (and thus greater accuracy) comes from repeated exposure to meaningful, correct forms (aka “comprehensible input”). That repetition in the correct form was one more toward reaching the critical mass I needed to acquire that particular feature (can’t remember what it was at the moment). But at the same time, for performance in a language at any moment, I like to think about a theoretical model applied to interpreting, which says (basically) that your brain is only so big, and if there are more things you need to pay attention to than you have processing capacity, something is going to get ignored. That’s what happened to me (and still does).

I also did an Oral Proficiency Interviewer training session for Mandarin in which we rated a bunch of speech samples from students of Mandarin. There were 2 or 3 non-native speaking teachers and a bunch of native speaking teachers in the session. We heard one sample from some one who had no tones whatsoever – perfect grammar, easy to understand, but no tones at all. The non-natives wanted to fail him, but the natives weren’t bothered by it at all. “We can understand him just fine,” they said.

I’m not saying ignore tones – far from it. But I think it would help everyone learning Chinese if they were put into their proper perspective. They are important, but not a deal-breaker in all situations, as is often claimed. If everyone could just relax about them, and think that they are (truly) no more difficult than learning to roll your “r” for Spanish – another “important” sound that can be done without and which is actually absent from certain dialects of Spanish anyway, sort of like there is major tone variation in different Mandarin dialects in real life – maybe more people would get to be proficient in Mandarin, rather than giving up after a few afternoons of listen-and-repeat.

There are also two kinds of tone errors – knowledge and performance. The reason foreigner tone errors seem to impact comprehension more might be that these two errors are mixed in together in their speech. A person who has a foreign accent substitutes one sound for another on a consistent basis, so the listener can figure out the “code” pretty quickly. But a person with knowledge errors in tones just plain doesn’t KNOW which tone it should be in the first place, so there’s an element of randomization thrown in. Since tones are just like single sounds in English (think “bat” vs “pat” vs “mat” vs “fat”) – it’s easier to get used to a speaker who consistently says “pat” when he means “bat”, but not so easy to get used to one who more or less says one of these four at random when he means “bat”.

That being said, I firmly believe that most of the grammar issues come from rules-and-output teaching. Students are rushed through the grammar rules, and usually asked to “Zao Ju” (“make sentences”). That means early output and way less input than is needed to acquire the structures. Structures take a long time to acquire – it doesn’t happen in a week just in time for the unit test. The students don’t really understand why they make errors in doing that sort of homework, although they are “corrected”. And anyway, applying rules, even if you know all of them, is time-consuming and leads to hesitation in speaking. The fluent speakers are the ones who can go from the meaning to the Chinese output, without stopping to go through English or use rules to “translate” what they mean into Chinese.

Pronounciation (ie, xue vs shui, dang vs dong)
Common Usage

If 3 are good, you can probably be understood. With only 2, good luck :wink:

I really think it’s just a matter of having enough of the various skills to get your point across, so people are picking up that 3rd or 4th skill, seeing improvement in comprehension and declare that skill must be the most important part of being understood.

all this discussion about tones, and how chinese comprehend or “hear” what foreigners sound like in Chinese, reminded me of this:

What foreigners hear when they hear English, pretty creative: … re=related

I doubt the latter part here. I don’t think English grammar is less important, despite the redundancy provided by its inflected nature (because the proper inflection is an additional burden, and another thing to get wrong). Correct grammar is one of the important things in any language to get right in order to be understood. It’s more likely that if English is your native language you’re simply not aware of the difficulties which would result from not getting the grammar right, and that what’s happening is that (as others have indicated) you may also be getting some other aspects of Chinese wrong sometimes, such that also having the grammar wrong means the listener has double difficulty in understanding you. “Little” things like a wrong particle, as Ironlady rightly points out, can make a huge difference. The inversion of order needed for relative clauses can be a stumbling block. In any event, trying to compare relative importance isn’t as useful as studying to get it right. :wink:

It’s hard to answer based on self-reports, because basically some people seem to have very poor awareness of their own actual levels of competence. People with poor tones or some combination of poor pronunciation and poor tones, for instance, may not be aware of the fact, and may be incorrectly assuming that the difficulties others have understanding them (or the corrections they receive) are due to some other factor such as grammar. I’m not asserting that your self-assessment is wrong, but a teacher working with you one on one would be better able to assess whether the main problem is indeed grammar, or whether that is just one of the areas needing work.

As for the importance of tones, opinions predictably vary. I would assert that if your Chinese is otherwise perfect in every way, you might be able to get away with poor (or no) tones most of the time, but that’s not a reasonable context within which to evaluate the importance of tones. Most people (as Feiren notes, often at the intermediate level) don’t speak Chinese with perfect pronunciation, grammar and usage, and in that context, also getting tones wrong just makes too much of a demand on the listener. Yuli’s point is valid – asking which is more important isn’t that valuable, as all these are needed.

That might occasionally be a minor factor in being misunderstood, and not getting the tone right might be a factor for the same reason, but as others explain above, the effect of the amount of homonyms and the effect of tonal errors is often overstated. That’s not to say tones aren’t important. They sometimes just make the utterance pretty, and sometimes matter a lot. The extent to which they will interfere with your being understood may depend on the particular context, as well as (importantly) the listener’s awareness that you might be getting the tones wrong. Some listeners seem to be aware that foreigners get tones wrong, and can do the cross-tone guessing needed to understand you anyway. Others seem to get stuck on the tone you actually produced and the meaning that implies. Others, as Chris notes, just weren’t expecting Chinese to come from your mouth, and speaking with poor or no tones probably does little to help them make the shift he mentioned.

Probably a combination of the latter plus some mispronunciations or misusage, plus some listeners not being prepared to hear you speak Chinese, plus some problems with tones. But again, a professional teacher’s assessment would be more valuable than this armchair speculation, no matter how much experience the latter is based on (and there’s an awful lot behind most of the answers in this thread).


Pronounciation (ie, xue vs shui, dang vs dong)
Common Usage

If 3 are good, you can probably be understood. With only 2, good luck :wink: [/quote]

Agreed. And since we’re not always the best judge of how good our own ability is in any one area, it’s important to continually focus on improvement in every area.

Having said all that, though, I think there is less margin for error in Chinese than in English, all else being equal.
Chinese is a more informationally-dense language (more information is carried per speech sound, per syllable and per minute of speech at normal native speeds) than English, IMO. (This comes from years of observation and years being tortured in interpreting school.) The main exception to this is when you get a speaker who just sort of loops around and around before finally getting to the point – that’s not very informationally dense. But if you take a sentence and look at the number of individual sounds and syllables and words, quite often the Chinese has less of these, which means that messing up one of them is a greater percentage of the original sentence, and would (I suppose) affect it more than a corresponding error of pronunciation or grammar in English.

At least this was a comforting theory for interpreting students feeling intimidated about going from Chinese into English…but get a good speaker going and threw in a few chengyu, and informational density can practically be tasted as you rush to keep up in English – which is a Bad Thing to Do. But an easy trap to fall into.

[quote=“ironlady”]Having said all that, though, I think there is less margin for error in Chinese than in English, all else being equal.
Chinese is a more informationally-dense language (more information is carried per speech sound, per syllable and per minute of speech at normal native speeds) than English, IMO.[/quote]
This is something i am very interested in: i don’t know enough Mandarin yet to make statements like this, but i have certainly got that same impression already even from the little bit i do know - for that reason i have been thinking about Latin a lot lately.

It doesn’t take very long to nail down most of the important basic grammatical features of Chinese. I’m personally a big fan of explicitly learning the grammar, but I understand that it turns many people off. The biggest problem I find isn’t so much to do with grammar, but rather that I often don’t know what the most natural way to express something is in a given situation. Experience is the best remedy for that I guess.


That’s another big advantage of not learning grammar explicitly (that is, not basing your progress in the language on memorizing the rules and then applying them.) If you acquire through input, you get the additional benefit of having heard the natural way to express things, rather than hearing one pattern shoehorned into a dialogue over and over again because “this is the directional complement lesson”, as is the case in a textbook. You get a jumpstart on your “experience” in the language that way.

Getting back to an older thread:

I have been looking for a source of “normal” language that i can listen to for longer periods of time but can’t get used to listening to the Taiwanese radio programs that i’ve found so far. Is there a radio station (perhaps even internet radio) or are there sound files on the internet that contain well-pronounced information without constant interruption by commercials and the hype/breathless talk/screaming, etc, that i find on the regular radio channels? I can’t handle the high tension/stress in the language in those programs and am looking for something more measured (“soothing”) like like what the BBC, CBC, Deutsche Welle, or NHK deliver. And could you recommend any other sources for “CI”?

I asked a similar question a while back in another thread (it was OT in that one too… :slight_smile: ). Here’s the question and reply:

That thread, which is mostly on news in general in Taiwan: … 83a2f8e55a

If chinese is unstructured, does that mean I can put measure words after the object? ie can I say the following in a conversation and still be understood?





If chinese is unstructured[/quote]
A very counter-factual “if”, and that explains perhaps why there has been no lengthy discussion about riceworm’s suggestion… and you can relax. :wink: :slight_smile:

That thread, which is mostly on news in general in Taiwan: … 83a2f8e55a[/quote]
Thanks for the info… judging by the kanji, 民視 and 公視 are TV stations?

The BBC, Deutsche Welle, and NHK all have lengthy daily Mandarin newscasts (as does the Voice of America and probably the news services of a few other countries). And Deutsche Welle has other non-news Chinese programs that are updated once in a while. Check on iTunes.


Deagonbones and odysseyandoracle, thanks for the follow-up.
I’ll check for various foreign radio programs in Mandarin - those should be relatively rich in spoken-word information and low in noise. :wink:

I am a native speaker of Chinese, though I left Taiwan 27 years ago for US. Are tones important? I can’t say for sure.

My father was a Hakka and my mom came from An-Hui (a central province of China). Right or wrong, I noticed my mom’s dialect tone system is transposed with mandarin, meaning mandarin 1st and 2nd tones = her 3rd and 4th, and vice versa. So, when we were kids if we had secrets that we did not want to share with her, us kids will utter sounds with month closed revealing each other with only tonal sounds. We could understand each other perfectly, but my mom never had much idea what we were up to.

Kind of like humming the tone contour of the phrase “I dunno”. Perfectly intelligible, but no words spoken.

But yes, tones are very important. People may be able to understand much of what you’re saying with some ear-stretching on their part, but it’s certain key words, pronounced in the wrong tone, that can completely mess things up.

I have a western friend who speaks Chinese fluently and well, except that his tones are messed up. And though I can understand most of what he says (especially since I expect his tone abuse), it’s hard for me to understand certain key words.

I think it depends on the person and how fast you are talking. There is no fixed rule except that using tones obviously helps.

I find if I cant remember the tones, with some people all I have to do is say the sentence really really really fast and they get what I am saying first time.

With other people no matter how slow or fast I talk if I can’t get the tones correct I find it difficult to be understood.

When you say a sentence quickly, are you saying it without tones or are you actually unconsciously imitating what you’ve heard? I have a classmate who says he doesn’t know any tones and doesn’t even try to learn them anymore, after studying for 5+ years. And yes, when he reads out loud he’s all over the place. But when he speaks in a conversation he gets about 80% of the tones right, which still isn’t fantastic, but it’s certainly a better percentage than can be attributed to guessing.

While tones are very important in Chinese, I think it’s also important not to think too much about them when you talk. It’s a fine line to walk.