Posts tagged: mandarin past tense

Dec 29 2009

Easy Past Tense Verbs

In Mandarin Chinese expressing verbs in the past tense is extremely easy.  In order to demonstrate this simply without teaching you any Chinese first let’s take a look at how incredibly difficult English is.

I am -> I was

I go -> I went

I eat -> I ate

I want -> I wanted

The first 3 verbs are irregular verbs, the English language has TONS of these annoying verbs.  The last verb is a regular verb meaning we can just add “ed” to the end of the verb to make it past tense.

So think for a second how difficult a language English is to learn.  A foreign speaker must simply memorize the past tenses of all those irregular verbs.   Imagine for a second, however, that the “ed” applied to every single verb in the English language.  In this hypothetical world the verbs above would be rendered :

I am -> I amed

I go -> I goed

I eat -> I eated

I want -> I wanted

To a native speaker of English the above renderings sound ridiculous, but to someone learning English they likely have sleepless nights wondering why they can’t just speak in the manner above.   It’s completely logical, but of course incorrect.

Now in Mandarin Chinese our hypothetical world comes true.  This is because they also have a similar “ed” rule in order to make their verbs past tense.  However, this rule has absolutely no exceptions.  There are no irregular verbs to memorize, just one simple rule that applies to the whole language.  Isn’t that easy ?

The figurative “ed” is actually “le”.  Just say “le” after any verb in Mandarin and you have the past tense.  To illustrate using our 4 examples above you simply say :

I am -> I am le

I go -> I go le

I eat -> I eat le

I want -> I want le

There’s no need to go into the actual Chinese for the verbs above as I am simply demonstrating one of the many ways in which Chinese is easy and logical.   (I do have to say though that the Chinese would rarely ever, perhaps never, put “le” after the verb “to be”.  So my example “I am le” isn’t entirely accurate as with this verb the context of the sentence would indicate whether we are talking about the past.  I think that one verb is the only exception.)

Now let’s talk a little bit about the Present Perfect tense.  Above was just simple past tense.  If you aren’t familiar with grammar and what Present Perfect means here are some examples :

I have eaten apples

I have heard that before

I have been to China

So we have situations where we “did” something and sometimes we say we “have done” something.  The most obvious difference I can see is that simple past tense is normally used to describe something we did in the recent past  (perhaps yesterday or last week) whereas present perfect is describing something we have done in the more distant past  or when we want to express that we have had the experience of doing something at least once.  For example when someone asks the question “Have you ever … ?” In order to answer that we would say “Yes I have …..” or “No I haven’t ever …..” using present perfect tense.  Using the verbs mentioned at the outset let’s look at their present perfect renderings :

I am -> I was -> I have been

I go -> I went -> I have gone

I eat -> I ate -> I have eaten

I want -> I wanted -> I have wanted

Here again we see no rule that applies to all the verbs making it that much more difficult to learn.  Mandarin Chinese however does have another rule to convey this type of verb tense.  You simply add “guo” to any verb.  So you would have :

I am -> I am le -> I am guo

I go -> I go le  -> I go guo

I eat -> I eat le -> I eat guo

I want -> I want le-> I want guo

Again with the first verb “to be” Chinese would never use “guo”, but I am just illustrating the simplicity of this rule.  The verb “to be” would be the only exception.

So there you have it.  Just learn “le” and “guo” and you have all the past tense versions of every single verb in the Mandarin language.  Can you say the same for English, French or Spanish ?  This is just one of many reasons why I think this is a very easy language to learn to speak.  I admit that the reading and writing is perhaps the most difficult, but you don’t need to know how to read or write in order to communicate and isn’t communication the purpose of language ?

I personally haven’t learned to write, nor do I think I ever will as I don’t need to.  I have learned how to read most of what I see but that was only out of interest and to continue challenging myself.  If you are thinking of learning Chinese or already are put reading and writing on the back burner, focus on your speaking and listening skills.  That’s just my personal recommendation.  You will have your hands full enough with just speaking and listening, no need to put your brain into overload.

Feel free to leave your comments and/or feedback

Dec 18 2009

Chinese Mandarin Past Tense

Expressing verbs in past tense is incredibly easy in Mandarin Chinese.

Think about English for a second

I am -> I was

I go -> I want

I eat -> I ate

I want -> I wanted

In English we are able to add “ed” to the end of SOME verbs.  But of course we have all those irregular verbs that don’t have that capability as shown above.  Well Mandarin is very easy.  They also have a sort of “ed” if you like.  The difference is every single verb in their language can be made past tense by using it, without exception.

It isn’t “ed” of course, it is “le” (pinyin spelling)

Adding “le” to the end of ANY verb renders it past tense.  Sometimes the “le” is said right after the verb, but also sometimes the “le” is put at the very end of the sentence.  I am not quite sure if there is any hard and fast rule about that, but as you learn the language I am sure you will pick up the feel of when to put “le” at the end of the sentence or right after the verb.

I yesterday eat “le” lunch

I yesterday eat lunch “le”

Here both sentences have the exact same meaning i.e. “I ate lunch yesterday”.  Regardless of where the “le” appears the meaning is the same.

Another way to denote past tense is to surround the action with “shi4” and “de”.  For example :

I “shi4” yesterday eat lunch “de” = I ate lunch yesterday.

Further, Mandarin also use “guo4” (4th tone) to denote past tense.  However “guo” is used to denote sentences like :

I have been to China

I have eaten fish before

I have played tennis

These are the sentences where “guo” would be used.  In English this tense is called “Past Perfect”.  But if you don’t like grammar just think of “guo” as something that has happened at least once in the past, most likely a long time ago.

A simple way I like to think of it is like this

Did you go to China ? (for this question you would use “le” because you are asking about something that happened in the recent past)

Have you ever been to China ? (for this question you would use “guo” because you are asking if someone has ever done something at least once in the past)

Here are more sentences where “guo” would be used :

Have you ever eaten fish ?

Have you ever seen this movie ?

I have played football before

I tried it once

I have used it

These sentences generally talk about something in the distant past.  However it is possible that the things above happened recently, however we are conveying the idea that we have done it at least once in our life whether that be recently or a long time ago.  If you want to convey simple past tense in Mandarin just use “le” or the “shi” “de” combination.

In actual fact, many meanings can be conveyed simply through context.  If you are talking about yesterday the listener already knows you are talking about the past and therefore it isn’t really necessary to ensure every verb has a “le” after it or whatever.  The same rule applies when talking about the future.  Mandarin is a language of logic, it isn’t clouded with endless grammar rules and regulations.  Just say the bare minimum required to get the meaning across without all the filler and you are fine.

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