Chinese Grammar: Learn it the Natural Way

When someone makes a mistake while speaking your native language, you probably can’t articulate the broken grammar rule(s), right? That’s because your sense of grammar is subconscious. Unfortunately, second language grammar is usually taught consciously by looking at grammar rules, which goes against our brain’s natural process of language acquisition. 

Grammar does not tell the language what to do; it is merely an ex-post-facto explanation of how the language works. Therefore, studying Chinese grammar will only allow you to explain how a function in Mandarin works, but you won’t be able to use it. Linguistic researcher Dr. Stephen Krashen spoke on this in an interview in the 1980s:

“I’ll never forget when I learned (consciously) the subjunctive in french. Every time I say the subjunctive correctly, I rekindle the victory of having first consciously learned it. Of course, it’s not there when I need it.” 

If you try to acquire Chinese grammar the traditional way, you will either be bored and frustrated or overworked and anxious, which is the opposite state our brains need to be in to absorb information effectively.

How Grammar Rules Can Help You 

Grammar rules (or “equations”, as I like to call them) can make you aware of specific structures, allowing you to notice and understand them faster than you would have otherwise. 

While you would eventually ‘click’ with any structure after enough exposure (just like you did with your native language), sometimes it is nice to take a little shortcut. Looking at Chinese grammar points is also an excellent way to marvel consciously at what you have already acquired subconsciously. 

How to Acquire Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar, Chinese Grammar: Learn it the Natural Way

To acquire Chinese grammar, i.e., understand and use Mandarin words accurately, you need to see and hear words in an understandable context many times. This is why the most valuable commodity to you as a learner is sentences. 

Whether you consume them individually, or as part of a paragraph, or even an entire story, you need a lot of them. The value of a sentence depends on two key factors: level of comprehension and level of context. You must understand the message of a sentence to gain any benefit from it, so the more understandable a sentence is, the better. 

It is also less time-consuming and stressful when you don’t have to continually look up words to “decode” what you are reading. A useful example sentence also contains enough context to manifest the unique characteristics of the word(s)/grammar you are trying to acquire. Take a look at the sentences you could use to learn the word 说话 shuōhuà “To Speak” to get an idea of the effect of more context: 

Sentence 1 

你别说话了,好吗?
“Stop speaking, okay?” 

Sentence 2 

有些⻦,像鹦鹉,能够教会说话,但他们不知道那些话的意思
“Some birds, like the parrot, can be taught to say words, but they don’t know what those words mean.” 

Sentence 1 is too short, and you could easily replace the word we are trying to learn with a litany of other common words. Sentence 2 is of decent length, most of the words used are common, and the word 说话 is not easily interchangeable with any other word. In terms of context and comprehension, sentence 2 is great. 

Finding sentences and longer-form content that is both comprehensible and rich in context is a luxury that becomes more accessible as your vocabulary expands. As a beginner, just being able to understand most of the words in an example sentence is a win. 

In The Mandarin Blueprint Method, we provide you with fully comprehensible example sentences for every word you learn after learning as few as 105 characters and 60 common words. You will also eventually unlock longer-form content such as short stories and dialogues as you increase your vocabulary. 

Active and Passive Grammar Acquisition 

Depending on your mood or schedule, you can use a variety of different resources and techniques to acquire Chinese grammar quickly. Sometimes you will do things more passively, sometimes more actively. 

Passive acquisition means reading, listening, or watching content without doing anything else. Just pay as much attention as you can to content at your level and enjoy the experience. 

There is no need to be concerned if you drift in and out of a podcast, or if you don’t understand every sentence you read or every scene in a TV show you watch. There is nothing wrong with this approach at all. In addition, If you do this every day, you will gradually acquire the language. 

Passive consumption is relatively easy, but it is slow. It is a good idea to make your acquisition more active when you can. Here are the most effective methods of active acquisition: 

Save new words as you encounter them 

If you want to be a bit more efficient with learning Chinese grammar, save new words in Pleco while you are looking them up. You can then categorize them and export them to create sentence flashcards in Anki. Pleco has its own flashcard review system, but it isn’t anywhere near as good.

Do “sentence mining”

Sentence mining is a staple acquisition activity for all levels, but especially suitable for intermediates. Search for Chinese words in a “sentence warehouse” such as Bing.com/dict (my personal favorite) and find a strong example sentence. Just one should be enough.

Create “cloze delete” flashcards for these sentences and review them daily. These cards require you to guess the hidden character each time you see the card. Therefore they demand more of you than basic flashcards. This card type takes more energy to review, for the reward of faster acquisition. 

Pro tip: When making cloze delete sentence flashcards, only hide one character on each card. Otherwise, the word can become too difficult to guess. 

Take screenshots

I find this technique most useful when reading a comic on my smartphone or when watching media on my laptop. When I see a sentence I like, I  take a screenshot and then review the images later.

Every Chinese TV show has hard-coded subtitles, and screenshots are an excellent way of using that to your advantage. The great thing about this is that you don’t only have a built-in image for the sentence, but the visual and written contexts combine perfectly! 

If you have some extra time on your hands, you could also use the image occlusion Anki add-on to make cloze deletes by covering up specific characters. Check out the images below for an example:

screenshots to help you acquire grammar

Do “shadowing” for Chinese grammar acquisition

Whenever you are listening to Mandarin, try to speak along with the audio, mimicking the speaker as closely as possible. Do this repeatedly with the same piece of content and watch yourself improve every single time. 

If you can do this while reading, then you will simultaneously improve reading, listening, speaking, and pronunciation. You can do this activity with individual sentences, or longer content, too. I made a video a while back explaining the whole process in detail, which you can watch here

Listen as actively as you can without burning out

The more you focus on the audio and try to understand it, the more you will learn. However, doing this will also make you tired more quickly than if you listen passively, so be careful not to burn out.

When you feel full of energy, try shadowing the audio, or even typing out what you hear to test your pronunciation.

Listeningpractice.org is a great resource if your Chinese grammar level is lower. When you are tired, have the audio on in the background and take in what you can. It’s also worth mentioning that meditation can help tremendously with recognizing burn out before it arrives. Headspace & Waking Up are both excellent meditation services. 

Choose Digital Reading Materials 

In language learning, it is far better to go for digital reading materials over print. Digital formats not only tend to be much cheaper, but they are more portable. And (most importantly) they allow you to look up and save words.

Pro-Tip: Trace each line as you read and listen. You’d be surprised how much this helps your understanding.

A final thought on Chinese Grammar:

Extensive Over Intensive Input

When it comes to mass consumption of longer-form content, you should never expect 100% understanding. The sweet spot is 98% comprehension for longer-form content, which falls into the category of “extensive” reading. 

There is a lot of research showing that extensive input (reading or listening at around 98% comprehension) is the optimal level of comprehension for language acquisition. We’ve found this concept to be so effective that we based our entire curriculum on it! 

If you understand almost all of what you read, you don’t have to stop to look up new words that much, allowing you to engage more with the content. Any new words you encounter also become easier to acquire because they not only stand out a lot more but also are surrounded by more context to help you decode the meaning. 

That said, the level of engagement you have with a piece of content may be just as important as (perhaps even more important than) how much you understand.

If you are reliving every scene from the Chinese translation of a beloved novel or watching a hilarious TV show, feel free to sacrifice some comprehension for the sheer enjoyment of consumption.

Try to start with what you like and go from there. Don’t know what that is? Try something new. How much fun you have should be the overarching factor in how you spend your time consuming Chinese. Remember that, and you’re golden.

Best Way To Learn Chinese
20 July , 2020
Gain Instant Access To Our Entire Curriculum