Why I Don’t Study Formal Chinese Grammar

In the four years I have been learning Chinese I have spent very little time studying the formal rules of Chinese grammar. It is not that I think doing so is a waste of time for language learners in general. Nor do I rule out reading more about it in the future. However, I am sceptical that it is helpful to spend time on formal descriptions of grammatical concepts prior to acquiring strong comprehension skills in Mandarin through mass input.

It is undoubtedly possible to produce grammatically accurate language in our mother tongue without having any awareness of the rules of grammar we’re unconsciously observing. We do it all the time. However, there is a school of thought that insists acquiring a second language as an adult requires some formal training in grammar; before producing accurate speech or writing we must first be taught the rules. As I have never enjoyed grammar exercises, I was initially worried that this might be true. However, several experiences have persuaded me my concerns were unfounded.

As it turns out, I have been able to acquire a large amount of Chinese grammar without ever referring to a grammar book or having grammatical concepts explained to me by a tutor. Instead, I have focussed on exposing myself to large amounts of comprehensible input, gradually allowing my brain to become accustomed to Chinese sentence patterns. Here’s an example of how that works:

As an elementary learner, I once spent two intensive weeks consuming Chinese graded readers in attempt to expand my vocabulary and build my reading fluency. I can remember how daunted I felt when turning to page one of my first book, a simple story about a boy who ran away from home. One of the first sentences read as follows: “每天回家以后,他就把学习的事忘了…” The sentence can be translated as: “Every day after coming home from school he would forget about his studies.” As with many of the sentences in the book I understood all of the characters but had to read over it a couple of times before the meaning became clear. The word order is completely different to english: “Every day return home afterwards, he then 把 study stuff forget 了.” The characters 把 and 了do not have counterparts in english.

Instead of seeking descriptions for the precise function of words like 把 or of the grammatical rules underpinning each phrase, I would read through challenging sentences a couple of times. I would try to infer the meaning of the sentence from the context where I could or move on to the next sentence if I couldn’t. This was not an easy task but it was a very fruitful one. After working through a couple of stories my reading began to feel noticeably more fluid. Sentences such as the one above which initially felt odd began to feel a little more intuitive. I have continued doing this ever since, reading as widely as I can and gradually becoming more accustomed to the language through novels and articles.

Eventually I reached a point where grammatical structures were rarely a barrier to comprehension. If I don’t understand a Chinese sentence now it is almost always due to a lack of vocabulary rather than a grammatical problem. As a result, I am often able to easily comprehend sentences in Chinese despite having no idea how to explain the corresponding rules. For example, the technical function of 把 in the sentence above is apparently: “a particle marking the following noun as a direct object.” But I acquired an intuitive grasp of 把 without relying on any such description. It is therefore of no more use to me than an explanation of the English word “a” as “an indefinite article before a singular noun beginning with a consonant sound.”

It seems to me that finding your own internal way of thinking about grammatical concepts and developing intuitions about them is a very useful tool to have as a language learner. If I had to refer to formal descriptions each time I encountered a grammatical structure in Chinese which diverged from English, I don’t know if I would ever progress! Moreover, the more I develop an intuition for sentence structures through mass input, the more I am able to reproduce grammatically accurate sentences myself. A recent encounter with a Chinese PHD student researching Mandarin second language acquisition confirmed that this is the case. The researcher wanted to test my ability to reproduce relative clauses in Chinese. She would give me a phrase in English and ask me to say it in Chinese.

The first phrase included a subject relative clause: The man who likes books. I translated this:喜欢书的男人 (literally: like book possessive particle man). Next up was a phrase with an indirect object relative clause: The girl to whom I gave the book. I translated this as 收到我书的女孩 (literally: receive my book possessive particle girl). Another sentence was: The way that I look at the problem. My translation: 我看问题的方式 (literally: I look problem possessive particle way.)

The researcher confirmed that my answers were accurate. This is despite the fact that going into the task I didn’t know what a relative clause was. Actually, I still don’t. In other words, despite having no knowledge or understanding of what relative clauses are I am apparently able to use them accurately to form grammatically correct sentences in Chinese.

These sentences were deliberately selected because they are challenging to beginner learners who will often arrange the words in a way which is similar to their native language. I would have found it impossible to complete this task if I had been asked to do it 2 years ago. The problem was not that I hadn’t studied enough grammar. Whenever teachers launched into complex grammatical explanations in the classroom I felt completely lost. Likewise when trying to memorise lists of separable chinese verbs. The problem was that I hadn’t yet acquired a familiarity with the language. As I discovered, there was a simple solution: lots of reading and listening.

In the end, if we want to understand and reproduce a foreign language, we need to acquire that language’s grammar. If by “studying” grammar we mean spotting patterns and internalising grammatical structures, then this is undoubtedly essential. However, acquiring grammar and paying attention to formal descriptions of grammar are two different things. Whilst I believe the former is essential, I have not yet found much use for the latter. Perhaps one day, if I wish to perfect my Chinese I will find grappling with technical grammatical explanations worthwhile. For now, I am content to continue spending my time immersed in Chinese content I find interesting.

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