Learning from Others’ Mistakes

In addition to the endless hours of fun and instruction we can get from anecdotes of other foreigner’s mistakes, some careful listening and a little intuition can turn your Chinese friends’ English mistakes into hot Chinese-language tips.

Chinese people often speak English as if it were Chinese, but with English words. This often causes mistakes (called L1 interference). If you have Chinese friends whom you are comfortable talking to about their mistakes in English, it can be extremely valuable for both parties. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:


Make a Dream

You can often just guess what the Chinese would be from the English mistake. For example, when my student said:

  • Last night I made a dream

I asked if he meant:

He looked surprised and said “exactly!” I was then able to tell him in English we “have” dreams instead of “making” them like you do in Chinese. What I didn’t tell him was that was the first time I learned how to say that in Chinese.

I used the same technique to learn that the part of the leg from your knee to the ankle is called:

  • xiǎo tuǐ 小腿 [little leg]

A student said she’d hurt her “little leg” and I guessed she wasn’t just talking about her overall stature. As I’m sure you could guess, “thigh” is “dà tuǐ” 大腿 [big leg].

Survey = Investigation

Other vocabulary mistakes may come from something called “divergent concepts.” That means in one language there are two words for two different things, but in the other language there’s only one word for both things.

One of the most frustrating divergent concepts in Chinese has to be all the words for the English word “break,” depending on what kind of thing is broken (see here for a list–but not a usage guide). Conversely, there are words that have multiple English translations but are a single word in Chinese. Besides the classic “he/she” mix up, examples of mistakes that reveal divergent English concepts that are convergent in Chinese are:

  • “I have a problem to ask you.”
    (wèntí 问题 = question / problem)
  • “I was so mad when my mother let me do my homework.”
    (ràng = let / make / ask)

A most unnerving example happed to me in my second week in China. The lady from the Foreign Affairs Office called to ask me some question for the “provincial investigation.” I immediately thought of police (remember this was my second week in China–I didn’t know what I’d done wrong!). The “investigation” turned out to be a one-question “survey.” I checked the dictionary and sure enough:

  • diàochá 调查 = survey / investigation / poll




You can also learn about grammar from hearing mistakes. A classic example of a grammar mistake in English that shows how the Chinese language works is the sentence:

  • Although it’s raining, but I still want to go.

That “but” shouldn’t be there in English, but when a Chinese person says the above sentence it should give us a clue about Chinese grammar. That “but” needs to be there in Chinese (and foreigners often leave it out when speaking Chinese). In Chinese the same sentence is:

How long have you bought it?

The other day I showed a student my new ping pong paddle. He asked me:

  • How long have you bought it?

I immediately said, “Wait. We would never say that in English. Say it in Chinese.” He said:

Apparently that means “How long ago did you buy it?” which sounds a little awkward in English. We’d probably say, “How long have you had it?” I was able to use that strange English sentence to find out a useful construction in Chinese, and to tell my student a way to ask what he meant in English that would actually be understood.

The Point Is

There is a time and place for ignoring mistakes in the interest of accomplishing the communication task at hand. However, mistakes that our Chinese friends make can give us a clue as to how Chinese works. Also, the more we learn about the Chinese language, the more we have X-ray vision into the brains of Chinese learners of English and can help them understand the source of mistakes caused by L1 interference.

If anyone has an example of an English mistake that is caused by Chinese interference, or even a mistake foreigners make when trying to speak Chinese, please feel free to tell us about it by leaving a comment.


  1. ha, i remember first learning in class, and being like, “What? You can’t use the same word for “let” and “make”! That distinction is important!”

    We first noticed the grammatical value of bad English when we were teaching in Taiwan.

    I’m four chapters into a book right now written in English by a Yunnan villager called “Mr. China’s Son.” Aside from being a really interesting memoir, his English I’ve not found anywhere else: he overly-literally translated a lot of words on purpose. ‘University’ becomes “big-school,” for example, and grammar comes through sometimes, too. It gives the whole thing a really interesting flavour.

  2. Here are a couple for you:

    Chinese people say “I’m very interesting in something” when they mean “interested”, and “he doesn’t interesting in” when they mean “he isn’t interested in”.

    In Chinese you ask 什么意思 shen me yi si (lit. “what meaning?”). In English, Chinese people say “what’s means?” instead of “what does it mean?”.

  3. I notice foreigners including myself have a tendency to unnecessarily make distinctions in Chinese where divergent concepts exist in English. I tend to say either 这个(zhe4 ge4) or 这些/这几个(zhe4 xie2/ zhe4 ji3 ge4) before every noun in Chinese because L1 interference makes me think I always have to decide whether something is singular or plural. I also used to say (le) after every verb that was in the past because it seemed necessary to specify that.

    On the other hand, I discovered my English students are always always forgetting to put “s” after a plural noun not because they don’t get the concept, but because it just doesn’t seem necessary for them to specify the singular or plural of every object they’re talking about. Maybe with enough exposure this interference will eventually go away.

  4. Just wanted to commend you on a great blog. I just discovered this blog today and was like…”wow! this is pretty cool.”

    It’s funny growing up learning Chinese as an ABC. My parents would laugh at me for my English directly translated into Chinese speaking. For example I didn’t know the vocabulary for the word “Chef” (now i know it’s 厨子–chu zi) so instead i would translate it into 炒飯人 (the cooking guy, or fried rice guy).

    My roommate also discovered another interesting vocabulary from talking with Chinese people in English. My roommate is multi-racial. His mother is white and his father is Chinese. However, when he tells Chinese people he’s mixed or multi-racial they get confused. When he tells them he’s “Mixed Blood” then they understand since in Chinese they call it simply “混血” (literally “mixed blood”).

    Oh thought you might be interested in this post I did about the different free online video lessons they have on youtube (http://blog.howma.com/?p=70). It’s kind of interesting. Check it out if you get a chance.


  5. Really insightful post, Albert. If I were learning English, I’d want you for a teacher! It takes some creative thinking to go beyond “it’s wrong, let me correct you” to “why is it wrong.”

    @Ben T: I feel for you. I sometimes resort to the literal translation in English that I know will be understood, rather than idiomatic English.

  6. Xiang…think or miss.

    sometimes I want to say wo xiang ni gousu blabla (I thought you said…) but I am always worried people will hear “wo xiang ni” (I miss you).

    This could be very awkward.

    Almost as awkward as when I said I like to eat toufou (wo xiang chi doufou) which mean I like to take advantage of women.

  7. I like your blog a lot. Very insightful and real.

    Stay vs. live was a problem for me in Chinese for a long time. Our campus is a boat ride away from the place most of us live. Some teachers live near the campus and some stay at the hotel if they have late classes. But my Chinese counterparts would tell me they were living at the hotel when they meant staying for one night. I was confused for a long time. As were the Chinese who I told that I didn’t live there but would stay for one night

  8. Roger, this is a problem I’ve actually got a great solution for!

    “”Xiang…think or miss.

    sometimes I want to say wo xiang ni gousu blabla (I thought you said…) but I am always worried people will hear “wo xiang ni” (I miss you).””

    For starters: it’s a bit more formal (but not *too* formal), you can say 想念 instead of just ‘’ to convey missing/longing for something. That helps big-time with Chinese people understanding your meaning.

    There’s another problem, though: “Miss”, in the sense that Chinese people are using it above, conveys active longing, something you actively want to return back to.

    So, talking to my friends here in China, I asked them — I lived in Japan a couple of years ago. I enjoyed it at the time, but I don’t want to go back there and live there again; it was an interesting phase of my life, but it’s done, I’ve moved on. How would you express that? Like the English concept of ‘Nostalgia’?

    They gave me this form:

    我怀念——-的日子, “Nostalgic for the days where _________”.

  9. When we hired a new receptionist at our International School she often called me and said “Hi, I am Rachel”, rather than “This is Rachel”. I thought it was funny but as I really thought about the Chinese I realized that she was just directly translating Chinese “我是。。。“ Just another example.

  10. “sometimes I want to say wo xiang ni gousu blabla (I thought you said…) but I am always worried people will hear “wo xiang ni” (I miss you).”

    For “I thought you said…”, you’d do better to say “Wo yiwei ni shuo…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *