Chinese mandarin nouns have no singular/plural forms. Also, the concept of time in mandarin is not expressed by changing verb forms, and other mechanisms are used for this purpose, such as adding 'action completion' particles to the end of verbs.

For Chinese students it would be natural to say "She has long leg", "I see that movie five year ago", "Many German come here last year, and tell many funny story", "I give you the book tomorrow".

Often for Chinese students simple repetition of the various patterns of singular/plural forms and present/past tenses does not seem to help much even after many years of exposure to an English-speaking environment (e.g. living in a English-speaking country for five or more years and being fully immersed into the language).

The concept of modifying noun and verb forms in order to express time or plurals does not exist in the Chinese language model, and some students still see it as a challenge to identify when to use a specific form.

From the perspective of a Chinese native speaker multiple verb forms and singular/plural forms for nouns are unnecessarily verbose, 'unclean' and inefficient, and therefore students have no reference point, and no way to hook the English patterns to something meaningful that makes sense to them.

I am looking for approaches and methodologies to remedy this problem specifically for Chinese mandarin learners given that mandarin is more of an analytic language when compared to English and thus simply does not have the concepts of word inflections.

  • "compared to English"? The Wikipedia page you reference says, "The currently most prominent and widely used analytic language is modern English, (...)." Please not that Mandarin is strictly speaking a dialect group and not a synonym for Standard Chinese. Does the problem you describe apply to speakers of any of the Chinese languages?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 9:48
  • @ChristopheStrobbe: I guess wikipedia's assumption is that English is more prominent and more widely used than Chinese. The same page says: For example, Mandarin Chinese has many compound words, giving it a moderately high ratio of morphemes per word, yet since it has almost no inflectional affixes at all to convey grammatical relationships, it is a very analytic language.
    – ccpizza
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 9:51
  • @ChristopheStrobbe: I mean native speakers of Chinese mandarin as their single original primary language.
    – ccpizza
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 9:58

1 Answer 1


There are several questions in one. Let me focus on plurals first.

First things first: from personal experience communicating with Thai native speakers, many would skip the -s simply because of phonetic difficulty, especially in endings like -ms or -ngs. See if this is the case; maybe you needn't go any further.

If the above does not work, several techniques are listed in "Chinese Learners and English Plural Forms" by Liu Jing, Evie Tindall and Deanna Nisbet. Namely,

  1. From known to unknown: Identify the key similarities and differences between Chinese and English; make your students re-use their knowledge of their native language to a new field:

    Chinese has several words for plural formation. These have limited use, but it is still better than nothing. Namely: particle 们 [men]; various classifiers used along with number; reduplication as in 人人 [ren2 ren], 年年 [nian2 nian], 月月 [yue4 yue], and 天天 [tian1 tian]. Teach how to apply these rules to English;

  2. Teach and discuss the formal English rules for plural;

  3. Teach the concept of countable and non-countable nouns;

  4. Teach the difference between the possessive and the plural;

  5. A standard suggestion, don't focus too much on formal rules. Learning ready-made phrases like "I went to a cinema with my friends" versus "…with my friend" may work better than brainstorming the rules.

For very meticulous students who wonder why the explicit plural is needed when it can be implied, you may discuss the differences between the reader/writer-responsible languages and let your students feel the difference between the known (Chinese) and the new (English).

The same, actually, can be said about any other attribute of L2: verb tenses, stress, articles, grammatical gender, noun cases, grammatical tones, etc. You will almost surely find some traces of the mentioned phenomenons in students' native language. Once you find it, show how to apply this knowledge for the language being learned.

  • I've done some googling before posting the question but the study by Liu Jing et al didn't come up — very valuable material. It also covers the topic with countable/uncountable nouns which was another point I was looking to address but did not include it in the question in order to avoid the scope creep. Much appreciated!
    – ccpizza
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 9:58

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