Grammar Refinement - How to?

Good day.

I am interested to hear ideas, if any, a reader out there may have for a self-serving system to refine one’s Chinese grammar.

Reason: It is difficult, as a student, to be able to judge if what I am saying, the way I am structing the sentence, and the actual words put into use are correct. The only way I know that my grammar is wrong, or my meaning is misinterpreted, or if my words are entirely wrong, is by looking at the expression on the listener’s face immediately after the utterance.

How can we refine our Mandarin abilities without just being a parrot of sentences we have previously heard (since many times they don’t fit an actual situations context)?

Yeah. As is typically the case, a few have told me, “Don’t worry about grammar.” That just frustrates the betel juice out of me!

Just really curious and looking to improve…

I’m sure there are whole host of ways to improve one’s grammar by the books, and what not, but I find the best way is simply to immerse yourself in the language. You’re in Taiwan, take advantage of that. Stop speaking English. Stop hanging out with the foreign crowd at night or in the teacher’s lounge or wherever – just hang out with your Chinese friends and speak in Chinese. Hell, just listening to them speak will improve your grammar as the hours and days pass. Eventually you’ll get an “ear” as to what is and isn’t correct. You’ll just know.

The inverse is also true for Chinese living abroad. In college, I knew a Taiwanese girl who came to the uni with utter shit for English. Her first semester she spent in an ESL class designed to get her to a decent level so she could start taking real classes the following semester. So, she dropped all her Taiwanese friends and started hanging out with just native English speakers. She picked up a Mary Collins novel and, while it took her 6 months to get through (especially with having to consult her little zi dian every other word) she did it. By the second semester, her English was fluent, and she had a damn good accent to boot.


Should we pay a lot of attention to grammar when we learn foreign languages? Many teachers may disagree, but if we know grammar better, we surely gain a lot more confidence in sentences we construct, and learn even faster when we are given a new phrase.

To answer your question, the answer is “Practice, practice, and practice.” Here I don’t mean just grammar, but every aspect you can do to get proficiency in the language.

Suggestions from my own experience in learning the first (English) or even second foreign languages in Taiwan and in the target country:

  1. Find a grammar book that suits your level, go through it bit by bit. This kind of teach-yourself process is actually quite helpful. If there’s no Chinese grammar book, then turn to your textbook for grammar sections or patern sentences.

  2. Ananlize the structure of sentences in texts in your Chinese materials. You will start to get better ideas of how the language is composed. Of course don’t need to do this everytime you read, too tiring!!! But again, very helpful.

  3. Be brave to speak Chinese, and don’t be afraid to talk to locals(in Mandarin of course). Talk to your classmates only in Chinese, and don’t just hang out with your country fellows. If you do, talk to them in Mandarin too.

  4. Listen to Chinese people talking, on buses, supermarkets, restaurants etc., and put down in your notebook useful sentences or words that you hear.

  5. Get a TV (especially if you don’t have many chances to talk to Chinese people), tuning to Chinese movies or dramas (daily conversation is usually conducted by characters in this kind of programs.) Besides, Chinese subtitles are shown for many TV programs; subtitles definately help you correctly catch the words or sentences that you don’t quite undersatnd by just listening. Put useful phrases down too in your notebooks.

Watching TV, I think, is a very good way for self-study, with only one problem: many Taiwanese programs suck. Also, many Taiwanese acters/actresses (especially teenagers or early 20s) talk like Rocky(the boxer in a movie series). Many times if I don’t glance at subtitles, I have no idea what those young good-looking acters/actresses are saying!!! AND I AM CHINESE/TAIWANESE!!!

95% of the problems for foreigners in Chinese are going to be vocabulary discrimination, not grammar. That’s for comprehension, anyway. If you really KNOW a bunch of words, you will have amazingly few problems comprehending. For production, I think that faulty pronunciation (segments and/or tones) is usually more the cause of miscommunications or “huh” on the part of the listener than any grammar problems on your part.

I do not teach grammar in any of the languages I teach (English, Spanish, Chinese). My students have outscored other students at the same “level” on grammar-based exams. How? They have heard the correct forms over and over and over again, so that they have acquired the patterns and even the verb forms (in the case of English and, even more so, Spanish). This doesn’t happen just by hearing the language on the street – they are exposed to it systematically, over and over, with vocabulary they KNOW and KNOW WELL. It’s great to listen but you have to know what the heck you’re listening to for it to help you in acquiring a language.

Of course you have to let go of some of the teacher controlled, grammar-freak attitudes to do this. My Spanish students, for example, couldn’t necessarily tell you whether you should use “preterite tense” or “imperfect tense” in one particular fill-in-the-blank exercise, but they could pick the correct form, and they could use the correct form in their own speech and writing. In the end we don’t take tests when we use a language, we get out and speak and listen or read and write it. (Let’s not get into writing Chinese, that’s another thing entirely.)

The other extreme is for the really analytical type, or the person who has a high tolerance for repetition. Get John DeFrancis’ Chinese textbook series and the tapes and just plug into it. (Inspiring titles: “Beginning Chinese”, “Intermediate Chinese”, etc.) Comes in two flavors: characters and Pinyin. It’s straight audiolingualism from the 1960s, but what he does is give you pattern sentences and just plug them over and over again. I was taught Chinese this way in the early 1980s and I don’t remember ever having problems or doubts about “grammar”. (I would prefer to have been taught the way I now teach, as I would have better tones along with the grammar, but you can’t have everything – where would you keep it?)