There's no denying that Chinese seems alien and impossible to learn to foreigners, especially at the beginning of their journey. And it's no wonder; a strange, complicated writing system, its tonal nature, and what seem to be contradictory grammar rules all conspire to give Chinese one of the highest student attrition rates among languages.
However, it can be an incredibly rewarding language for those that persist with their studies. Recognizing a character, reading a sentence, or being understood by a native speaker feels like a huge victory. And for those visiting China, speaking and reading some of the language can make what can be an overwhelming experience more enjoyable and get you to places you wouldn't manage with English alone.
In this article, I introduce and explain an aspect of Chinese that many learners find strange and confusing: measure words.
In Chinese, measure words act on and classify nouns into different categories, for example, animals, flat objects, or books. The vast majority of nouns are associated with measure words; however, some nouns are measure words as well and don't need another before them.
Although they can seem confusing and unnecessary at first, measure words can give you a clue as to what the noun following them may be. The most common measure word is 个 (gè), the measure word for, among many other things, people. It's also a generic measure word that every native speaker will recognize as such, so if you can't remember the correct one for the noun you're using, add 个 and you'll likely be understood.
Chinese doesn't have articles as we do in English, so I find it easier to think of 一个 (one of) as "a" or "an." With larger numbers, think of it as "two of" or "five of;" this applies to any measure word, not just 个.
There are some situations where you don't need to add a measure word before a noun, for example, when using "some" (一些/yīxiē), "those" (那些/nàxiē), or "these" (这些/zhèxiē).
Anywhere you'd use "a" or "an" in English or are counting a noun usually requires a measure word. There's no definite article in Chinese; the closest is 那个 (nàge/that one), so things like the sun don't need a measure word. You also need them when pointing something out, like "that one" above or "this one" (这个/zhège). Note in these two examples that the tone in 个 changes from falling to neutral. Tones often change in Chinese, principally because it's difficult to say some tones together in one word. But that's for another article.
It's worth pointing out that "please" (请/qǐng) is rarely used in the spoken language. Not because Chinese people are impolite, far from it, but it's only used when asking someone to do you a favor or if you want to be extremely polite. So it's perfectly acceptable to point at an item on a menu and say 这个 or walk along a street food stall saying 那个 while pointing at what you want.
There are hundreds of measure words in Chinese, but most people only need to learn a few dozen. Many are archaic and no longer used, and some noun categories have more than one measure word, with a general one covering all in the category.
Below, I've listed a few of the most common:
The measure word for books is 本 (běn), also used for parts of a television series. In common with other measure words, it has a meaning in its own right, in this case, "this," among others. Most Chinese words have multiple meanings, and context will give you the intended meaning. It all sounds very confusing, but it becomes second nature as you progress in your studies.
条 (tiáo), which means "stick" or "twig," is the measure word for long, thin objects, such as roads, trousers, or snakes. It's also found in words such as 面条 (miàntiáo/noodles), which translates literally as "flour stick."
Animals are a noun category with a few different measure words and a common one, that being 只 (zhǐ), which can also mean "only" or "just." It's also the measure word for one of a pair; for example, "a pair of shoes" is 一双鞋 (yī shuāng xié, where 双 is the measure word for pairs), but "a shoe" is 一只鞋 (yī zhǐ xié).
Other animal measure words include 头 (tóu/head) for livestock, which is the same as in English with "ten head of cattle," and 匹 (pǐ) for horses and mules, which can also mean "equal to." My personal favorite, though, is that 条 (stick) can be used for dogs, keeping the connection between them and their favorite toy.
The measure word for flat objects, such as tickets, tables, and pieces of paper, is 张 (zhāng). Rather strangely, it's also used with "tongue." On its own, it can mean "to open up" or "spread."
An essential measure word to know is 块 (kuài/piece), as it's used with money. All Chinese merchants use it, saying something like 十块钱 (shí kuài qián/ten pieces of money). It's also handy for ordering a piece of pizza (比萨/bǐsà), one of the few loan words in Chinese that sounds something like the original.
The last measure word I'll cover is 台 (tái), used with computers, typewriters, and, oddly, tractors. On its own, it means "platform," so it is often found in combination with other words, such as 平台 (píngtái/terrace) and 站台 (zhàntái/railway station platform).
Although there are a lot of them, and they can be difficult to remember, learning measure words can boost your progress in the language. Even if you don't recognize a noun in a conversation or written passage, recognizing its measure word will enable you to make an educated guess.
If you only learn the few I've mentioned above, it will certainly help your Chinese. Remember, though, that where I've used 个 in an example, it may be better to use another measure word appropriate for the noun.