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Self-study Lessons > Chinese, Mandarin > Beginner >

What's behind the discussion of measure words

by Clary Xue

One day I saw a big discussion around Chinese measure words in the web. Many teachers and learners took part in, but confusions were still there. It's interesting to see the different ways of different cultures. Following is my clarifications.

To question is a great legacy in the West; while to observe and accept is a character in China. So there are lots of interesting scenes in classrooms when east meets the west, and generally no one is satisfied¡ªquestions are either too many or too few :D

As for the measure words, my suggestion is, if you really want to make it clear then we cannot only focus on the present usages, because the current language is a result of thousand of years¡¯ evolution. Since Chinese language is a little bit old, there are inevitably some cases seemingly to be irrelevant, but actually connected under the river of time. Like the measure word ¡°zhang¡±, it¡¯s not in one single day that all Chinese people decided to use that to measure the bow, the mouth, the paper and the bed.J (Even if we like to do so, we could not, because we didn¡¯t have the nowadays ¡°bed¡± until probably Yuan dynasty.) It is connected with the evolution of the character ¡°zhang¡±¡ªhow it is developed from describing the action of opening a bow to a measure function. And the evolution of the character ¡°zhang¡± again has its own historic and sociologic context¡­

This is only one incomplete example, to understand clearly how every word becomes to now is a totally different subject. It would be great if teachers can explain any question about the language, but unfortunately either there is a language barrier, or a time limit in class, and sometimes to explain a question needs other skills¡ªespecially when entitled with logical or illogical ¡­Conversation easily diverges¡­ Logic is an interesting topic in Chinese learning. In class I like to say that logic was not in China till it was translated :) So do we have any logic, maybe no :D  Same as humor :D

There are many cases in language that native speakers feel too natural to ask why and  it¡¯s not easy to explain them well. But it doesn¡¯t mean there is no rule. It is just not expressed or discovered. Like in the no-question English class, is there really no question?

I completely understand the confusions and frustrations when foreigners learn Chinese because¡­you know¡­we had similar experience before... But just compare this little problem with being able to communicate with more than one billion people in a not too small place. Is this still a big deal? Cheers:P

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