4 Common Mistakes Chinese Learners Make (and How to Avoid them)

Hello, my Mandarin-learning comrades! As I’m sure you have realized, Mandarin can sometimes be a bit of a doozy, and you may sometimes find yourself wondering, “Is this the right way to be learning this?” This article will hopefully answer some of your questions and give some general guidance.

The “mistakes” discussed in this article do not refer to grammatical mistakes or improper word usage, but rather the conscious decisions made by learners in an attempt to speed up or simplify the learning process. And as Mandarin is a challenging language, these shortcuts can be very tempting! However, from my experience, in the long run, these shortcuts really do much more harm than good.

“Don’t take shortcuts when learning Chinese, ’cause, it’s like, not a good idea.” (Source: made up Sun Zu quote)

Mistake #1: Neglecting the tones

This may sound obvious, but skipping over the tones is a bad idea! Yes, the tones are confusing and hard to differentiate at first, but completely essential if you ever plan on actually communicating in Mandarin.

But Saaaam, I hate the tones!

I know, I know. They are frustrating, but to put it simply, if you skip the tones, people won’t understand you. I have met people who quickly decided that the tones were too difficult, so they insisted on just sounding out the pinyin and essentially inventing the tones along the way. This would be just like skipping over certain English letters because you found them too difficult to pronounce, which is clearly not the best course of action (okay you could probably skip “Q” and still get by but that’s not the point).

Those who have not learned a tonal language before may have the misconception that the tones are somehow “optional,” or “extra.” This is not the case. If you change the tone, you change the whole word. To give a very intuitive but overused example, the words “boiled dumplings” (水餃 shuǐjiǎo) and “sleep” (睡覺 shuìjiào) have the same pronunciation with the exception of the tones, as demonstrated in the beginning of this fun lil’ music video.

The tones will certainly seem daunting at first, but they will slowly start to tune themselves through deliberate practice and lots of listening to native speakers. Save yourself the embarrassment down the road, and drill those tones! Here’s a good place to start!

Mistake #2: Skipping the measure words

Why do paper, picture, and table use the same measure word? Why do guitar, knife, and chair use the same measure word? Why do noodle, dog, and road use the same measure word?

Measure words may seem illogical and superfluous at first, but they really aren’t as bad as you think. In fact, we have something quite similar in English! A sheet of paper, a blade of grass, a school of fish, and so on. This is very similar to how measure words function in Mandarin.

The first measure word you will likely learn is 個/个 [gè], as it applies to many different nouns. So why not just use it for everything? Well, I suppose you could, and you will likely be understood for the most part, but it could cause confusion, and really doesn’t sound great. Would you recommend that someone say “a grass” or “a wood”?

So how can one learn them? One useful trick is to always take note of the measure word each time you come across a new noun and make a habit of reviewing the two together. For example, if you made a flashcard for the word “book,” instead of just writing 書 / 书 [shū] on the back, write 一本書 / 一本书 [yī běn shū], or note the measure word somewhere. Eventually, it will simply “sound wrong” when you hear something like “a sheet of pen” or “a flock of bananas.”

Mistake #3: Not learning characters

If you take anything away from this article, it is that the characters are worth your time. Chinese characters are undeniably one of the most — if not the most — difficult part of the language. Yet, I always strongly recommend against “just learning pinyin.” Deciding to not learn characters is deciding to learn how to be illiterate in Chinese. Doesn’t sound so great now, does it?

Don’t get me wrong, pinyin is a useful tool when it comes to learning pronunciation and typing on your phone or computer, but pinyin is not Chinese. There are no newspapers published in pinyin, restaurant menus will not be written in pinyin, and your Chinese or Taiwanese friends won’t text you in pinyin (and even if they did, it would be really hard to understand!).

Yeah, but still, they’re super hard… and dumb I hate them I don’t want to learn them shut up Sam I hate you!

People often ask me, “Do I really need to learn the characters?”, and are always disappointed with my answer. While characters are one of the hardest parts of the language, they’re also one of the most fun. Start doing your to-do lists in Chinese, write out some characters when you’re bored, or review flash cards while you’re waiting for your friend who always comes late to your coffee dates (ugh, typical Cheryl). Before you know it, you’ll start to recognize patterns, and those pesky characters will eventually start to stick!

Mistake #4: Choosing simplified characters just because they’re “simpler”

Now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you to learn characters, please let me make a case for at least considering to learn traditional characters.

Shut up Sam I’m still mad at you.

Many of you may have already chosen to learn simplified characters, and there is nothing wrong with that. Simplified characters are used all over China, some other areas in Southeast Asia, and by overseas Chinese people, so you will definitely not be short of language exchange partners or learning resources. However, I typically recommend against choosing simplified characters just because they’re simplified.

Why? Well, many will argue that you “lose” a lot of the language if you learn simplified characters. This is a claim that is often slightly exaggerated by traditional character enthusiasts, but it does have some truth to it. I won’t go into detail in this article, but if you’re curious, there’s a surprisingly comprehensive Wikipedia article dedicated to this debate.

I should also mention that although traditional characters have more strokes, this difference in strokes is not proportionate to the difference in difficulty (i.e. a character with ten strokes is not necessarily twice as hard as one with five).

The decision of whether to learn simplified or traditional characters will ultimately come down to individual circumstances, but generally speaking, my recommendations can be summed up as follows:

Learn simplified if you:

  1. Plan to mostly speak with Chinese people, read books written in simplified characters, etc.
  2. Plan to or currently live in China
  3. Really want the pick of the litter when it come to Chinese-learning resources (although there are still plenty that offer both simplified and traditional characters)

Learn traditional if you:

  1. Plan to mostly speak with Taiwanese people, read books written in traditional characters, etc.
  2. Plan to or currently live in Taiwan (or Hong Kong or Macau)
  3. Are interested in ancient Chinese literature
  4. Are a linguist or are interested in Chinese for nerdy language reasons
  5. Plan to eventually learn both traditional and simplified

Of course, it’s still possible to start with simplified and later learn traditional, but it’s a bit more challenging. I personally began with simplified because it was all my university offered, and I was preparing for an exchange to China at the time. I have since then swapped over to traditional characters and have not starved yet here in Taiwan. So far so good.


And that’s it! Mandarin is not an easy language, but that should not deter those who are truly interested in it. It is a long journey, and there will be many tempting shortcuts to take along the way, but skipping the tougher aspects of the language will really hinder your proficiency down the line. But why listen to me?

Sam is smart and you should listen to him (Source: Confucius, probably)

Thanks for reading! What do you think about all of this? Are these shortcuts worth it? Feel free to share your thoughts, experiences, questions, credit card numbers, etc.

Peace and love,
Sam