What Are Measure Words?

The other day I got an email with a link to a resource promising to help students learn the 115 most common measure words. Measure words are a feature of the Chinese language. Each noun in Chinese has a measure word that is used between it and a number. For example, in the phrase 三只狗 (three dogs) the character 只 is the measure word. Each noun will have at least one. Some students, especially adults who have limited time in their schedules for language learning like to look at charts that describe grammar. There is very little evidence, however, that looking at a resource like a chart will help a student acquire a second language. While adults may like an orderly description of a language, children, especially young ones, do not like to sit still and read about grammar.

Will A List Help?

Measure words are usually described as one of those tricky things to learn in Chinese. We do not really have them in English. In English, we say “a pair of scissors” or a “cup of water,” but measure words are much more extensive in Chinese. So if looking at a list of measure words*, does not help a student acquire measure words, then what does?

How Should Students Learn Measure Words?

Students will acquire the correct measure words if they hear them repeatedly. As stated above, looking at a chart of measure words is not the best use of learning time. Instead, if students hear a noun paired with a measure word over and over, they will retain that pair. Young children will not sit down and study a chart, but they will listen to a story. The measure word for hat is 顶. The pairing of 帽子 (hat) and 顶 shows up in the classic story Caps for Sale. There are hats in over 20 illustrations in the book. If a teacher reads the story to her students and counts the hats in the pictures the students will hear #顶帽子 over and over. Eventually, that pair will sink in for the students. They will have learned that the measure words for hats is 顶 without sitting down to explicitly learn that the hat measure word is 顶.

picture of Chinese version of Caps for Sale
Students will acquire correct measure words if they get enough input in context

*To be fair, there is a logic to them. For example, objects with a large, flat surface usually take the measure word 张

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