Chinese Language Learning – Things that puzzle me as a heritage speaker

Hey all, I’ve been on this sub for a while and I’ve noticed most people here are learning Chinese as a second language. First of all, good job! It’s not an easy language to learn (even for native speakers) so keep going and 加油. (I’m a heritage speaker who is still learning so I know the struggle.)

Secondly, as I’ve never learnt Chinese as a foreign language, there are some things that puzzle me when non-native speakers talk about their experience of learning Chinese.

I am not intending to criticize anyone, I am genuinely curious.

1) Why do you focus so much on the literal meaning of words/phrases? For example, many people on this sub have mentioned that they are bemused by 马马虎虎 (or 马虎) but surely you know that it just means “sloppy, shoddy”, no one literally talks about two species of animals when they say this phrase. In English there are phrases like “his/her head’s not screwed on right”, no one is actually implying that humans are bolted together like Frankenstein, because it’s just a figure of speech (well in Australian English anyway, apologies if this is not a common expression in your version of English).

Does it help you to remember phrases when you break them down into the component words/characters and remember their literal meaning?

2) Why do some people struggle with tones? It seems that people whose first language is atonal really struggle with getting the tones right (at least at the beginning). Why is this? Can you not hear the difference between tones, or do you just struggle to remember which tone goes with which character?

If you could enlighten me, it would help me understand what it’s like to learn Chinese as a foreign language. I would like to teach Chinese in the future so this will be useful for me to note for future reference.

Thanks in advance!

Edit: I think I understand point 2 now. In atonal languages, tones are variable. The language is not actually monotonous but tones change according to context and emphasis. (Eg. “okay!” and “okay?” sound different in English). Whereas in Chinese tones are fixed regardless of context or intention. This is why people get confused with tones in Chinese because they don’t understand that they are fixed and immutable (except for weird tone changes like 3-3 combination). Am I on the right track?

Also, English does have tones. Try saying “It does? It does!” You’ll see that “does” goes from the equivalent of tone2 to tone4. I thought that was kinda neat.



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  1. Alex290790 September 28, 2022
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