Common Chinese Language Mistakes Part 1

eraser and word mistakes, concept of Making Changing
eraser and word mistakes, concept of Making Changing

We have been teaching Mandarin courses in Singapore for more than 10 years. Over the years, we’ve taught many English-speaking students, and we’ve noticed that they tend to make the same mistakes. Some mistakes are specific to the individual, but most of them are common mistakes, probably because of their foundation in English.

So in this series Common Chinese Language Mistakes, we’ll share with you what these mistakes are so that you can learn from them and fast track your learning curve. In the first part of this series, we’ll share 3 mistakes:


Tonality is by far the most common mistakes made among English speakers. This is most probably due to the tonality of English words and pronunciation.

People think that just looking at the Hanyu Pinyin words will do. But many often ignores the tone of each Mandarin word. I’d go as far as to say tones are the alphabets of the Mandarin language. Here’s a brief summary of how each of the 4 tones sounds like in Mandarin, as mentioned in our post on Mandarin Tones.

  1. First tone – high level sound
  2. Second tone – rising tone
  3. Third tone – falling then rising tone
  4. Fourth tone – falling and short tone

If you just read the Hanyu Pinyin words, sometimes you can get away with it, in places such as Singapore (because most Singaporeans are bilingual and they can probably figure out what you’re saying). But if the tones are completely off, people might misunderstand what you’re talking about. So what I suggest is when you start to learn Mandarin, start learning the tones by grouping the words with the same tones to having a feeling of tones. That is your foundation. Listening to Mandarin speakers more often would also help you get the right sounds.

Wrong Usage of 和

When people just started learning Mandarin, they’d usually throw the word 和 hé around. That’s a common mistake, because they misunderstand the meaning of 和. They think that 和 and “and” in English have the same meaning.

Not really.

“And” in English can be used in a variety of situations. It is quite versatile. But not for 和.

和 has the same meaning as “and” in English, just that 和 can only be used between two nouns (subjects and/or objects). 和 cannot be used to connect actions, nor can it be used to connect phrases like events. For example, I went to the Chinese restaurant and ordered a cup of green tea. 和 cannot be used to substitute the word “and” in this example. In this example, 和 is not necessary.

gēn has a similar meaning to 和, but it is more accurate to describe it as “with”.  is usually used to connect two people in a sentence, and it’s less commonly used for objects.

yǔ has similar meaning as  and , but it is used more commonly in formal and literary writing.

If you want to use conjunction words for a series of events, 然后 rán hòu can be used. 然后 shares the same meaning to “and then” in English.

Usage of 吗 in a Positive-Negative-Positive Phrase

There are two ways to ask a question in Mandarin.

  1. Positive-negative-positive phrase – E.g. 你要不要去吃午餐? (Do you want to have lunch?)
  2. Using 吗 at the end of a sentence – E.g. 你了吗? (Have you eaten?)

The mistake people usually make is to combine both positive-negative-positive phrase and 吗 together in a sentence, which is usually wrong.

That’s it. The 3 common mistakes that people usually make when learning Mandarin. I hope you found it helpful. If you can learn from these 3 mistakes, your Mandarin would definitely improve. Of course, there are many more common mistakes made in Mandarin and we’ll share it in the subsequent posts. Stay tune! In the mean time, if you want to learn Mandarin in Singapore, have a look at our classes or contact us for more information. Hope to see you!

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