Tag Archives: Chinese

The Great Dilemma: Chinese Tenses

One of the most difficult things that any native English speaker will face when starting to study Chinese is the fact that Chinese does not have any verb tenses. When I first heard the news, I sat in stunned silence for a moment trying to get that little piece of information to compute in my brain. How on earth does one communicate effectively without verb tenses?  Every other language I had ever explored used tenses: Korean, Farsi, Spanish, Swahili, French, Italian…But, it turns out that Chinese does not find them necessary. This was going to be a new frontier.


However, two years into my Chinese studies, this aspect of the language still poses significant challenges for me.


Sure, Chinese has handy words like , which can be used to indicate that something occurred in the future, and , which can be used to indicate that something occurred in the past.  But the operative word in both of these situations is “can.”  For, you see, and do not always mean “future” and “past,” respectively.


So, what’s a girl to do?


Well, apparently, she is to learn as much about context as possible.


Let’s look at this example:
wo3 zhi3 xue le5 yi4 nian2 duo1.
Chinese word order: I only studied one year a little more than.
Possible English translation #1: I have only studied for a little while.
Possible English translation #2: I only been studying for a little bit over a year.
Possible English translation #3: I only studied for a little bit over a year.


As you can see, it was not clear to me from the onset which tense this sentence should be translated into: the present perfect tense, the present perfect continuous tense, or the simple past tense?


And Linda, my Chinese language partner for this lesson, provided a response that was not exactly along the lines of what I was hoping to hear. I wanted a clear, direct, definitive answer. Something like: 2+2=4.  In each and every situation, 2+2=4.


However, Linda explained that the exact meaning of this sentence depended on the context.  Well, there was no context. It was a single, random sentence from one of my workbooks.




So, I re-worded my thoughts and asked the question again. “Are there any clues at all that would indicate which verb tense we should use for this sentence?”  And again, the answer was, “No.” There was no way to know the exact meaning of this sentence, without context.


This response has become pretty common whenever I ask one of my Chinese language partners about verb tenses.  So, it is finally starting to sink in for me that much of the meaning of Chinese sentences has to do with the overall situation.  Most people who study Chinese (or any foreign language) understand that it is counterproductive to translate word-for-word from Chinese to English, or from English to Chinese.  And so, what we try to do instead is understand the overall “feeling” of one language, then try to capture the meaning of the content in the second language.


That part can be easy enough, given that one has a solid understanding of the necessary vocabulary words used and of the manner in which words are ordered in both languages.  But again, the adverbs and other keywords are going to be important.


In conclusion, I will admit that I do not have any concrete solutions for this situation.  I am still on my journey, as trying as it is much of the time.  The goal here is not to offer a solution to the problem, as I do not myself know what the solution is.  Instead, I just wanted to serve notice to any new learners about the situation.  Perhaps, knowing in advance that Chinese does not have any verb tenses will help you to readjust your thinking before you get too deep into the language.  Afterall, having the right mindset is half the battle when it comes to learning a new language.


I hope that this article helps someone.


Happy studying, everyone!