As an ESL teacher, I see my students struggling with interference from their mother tongue on a weekly basis. It’s a challenge, at times, but it is something that can be overcome by putting in a lot of hard work under the right kind of guidance. I had never really given too much thought to interference experienced by Chinese learners though. The assumption always is that, hey, Chinese grammar is easy and so similar to English to the extent that interference, at least grammatically or syntactically speaking, is a non-issue. Of course, this is simply not true. Reading Tian Shou-he’s A Guide To Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese made me realise this even more. The book is not particularly ground-breaking reading for any learner beyond the intermediate level, but it does provide some interesting comparisons between Mandarin and English. I’ll give a summary of the more insightful ones here. It might be helpful for beginner and intermediate learners to look out for these particular ones.
Graduate – In English we have this fixed idea that when one graduates one graduates from an institution. However in Chinese it’s the other way around – the institution goes before “graduate”, the logic of which my stupid Western brain cannot quite wrap its head around. Thus, whilst in English one says, “I graduated from university three years ago,” in Chinese you inevitably say, “I from university graduate three years [ago] (我从大学毕业三年了。 Wǒ cóng dàxué bìyè sān nián le.)”
Enough – Put simply, English: “quick enough”; Chinese: “enough quick (够快 gòukuài).
Can – I think this is one of the big hurdles for Chinese learners to overcome in their first stages of learning. “Can” is usually translated as either 能 néng, 会 huì or 可以 kěyǐ, and each of these words have different usages. I’ll try to outline these as simply as possible:
能 néng indicates a general ability or possibility. For example, 你能赢吗？Nǐ néng yíng ma? (Can you win?) or 我不能告诉你 Wǒ bùnéng gàosu nǐ (I can’t tell you).
会 huì indicates an ability to do something. For example, 我会说中文。Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén (I can speak Chinese) or 我不会开车 Wǒ bù huì kāichē (I can’t [I’m unable to] drive). And to make it more confusing, 会 huì can also mean “will”, e.g. in, 他们俩会结婚吗？ Tāmen liǎ huì jiéhūn ma? (Will they [those two] get married?)
可以 kěyǐ indicates one’s permission or strong possibility to do something. For example, 我可以自己选择吗？Wǒ kěyǐ zìjǐ xuǎnzé ma? (Can I choose for myself?) or 我可以下载这首歌吗？ Wǒ kěyǐ xiàzài zhè shǒu gē ma? (Can I download this song?).
Naturally, there’s some overlap. Over time, though, you get used to the differences, even to the extent that it is hard to explain their exact usages beyond a mere “feeling”.
Everyone/everybody – In Chinese, we make a distinction between everyone in a particular group (大家 dàjiā) and everyone in society at large (每个人 měi ge rén). So, when saying hello to “everybody”, you say 大家好 dà jiā hǎo and not *每个人好 měi ge rén hǎo, which literally means, “everyone is good”.
Again – Although Chinese lacks the grammatical category of tense, it does make the occasional distinction between past and future-like aspects in some words. “Again”, for example, can be translated as 又 yòu or 再 zài according to whether the verb has already happened or will happen in the future or hypothetical. For example, to translate “He came again.” you would say 他又来了。Tā yòu lái le. However if you want to say “He will come again”, you would need to say 他会再来。Tā huì zài lái.
Or – Unlike English, Chinese makes a distinction between “or” used to create a statement and “or” used to ask a question. For instance, 中文或者英文都可以 Zhōngwén huòzhě yīngwén dōu kěyǐ (Chinese or English are both fine), but 中文还是英文？Zhōngwén háishì Yīngwén (Chinese or English?). Notably, however, “or” used in a statement can also be expressed by 还是 háishì as well – 中文还是英文都可以 Zhōngwén háishì yīngwén dōu kěyǐ is equally acceptable. However, for the sake of clarity, it is easier just to remember one for making statements (或者) and one for making questions (还是). If a native speaker uses 还是 in a statement your brain should still be able to join the dots.
Being terribly inadequate at mathematics, I’m not even going to go into the Chinese number system or the complexities of 倍 bèi. Nor will I attempt to analyse other stuff like word order and pronouns. Needless to say, there are plenty more differences between the languages that get in the way of learners, and even experienced ones still get interference from time to time.