Mandarin Chinese is a much more ambiguous language than many other Western languages. Some examples include that without the context, you would not be able to tell if you were talking about singular or plural, and there is no way to say verbs in past, present or future.
All verbs in Mandarin Chinese has a single form. In English, the verb “run” can change to “ran” for the past, and “running” for current. In Chinese, the verb will always be “跑 pǎo”.
You may now be wondering if this is the case, then how can can you tell when an event is occurring? It can be difficult to get used to the grammatically ambiguous way of the Chinese language, but once you have some practice, you may find it easier than English.
The easiest way to do this is to use the time expression as part of the sentence. Most of the time, you can place this at the beginning. For example, taking the above verb, we can understand more context.
Zuótiān zǎoshang wǒ pǎole bù
Yesterday morning I ran.
Wǒ zhèngzài pǎobù.
Literal translation: I in the midst of running.
I am running now.
Míngtiān xiàwǔ wǒ yào pǎobù
Tomorrow afternoon I want to run.
As you can tell, the literal translations may not be how we would phrase our English sentences, but the message gets across.
Some characters that you will get familiar with to tell the tenses include:
The first sentence has the word “了 Le” in it. This is a key indicator of something that has occurred in the past.
Be careful when you use this though because it can confusingly also refer to something that is happening in the immediate future. You could say “明天我要去美国了! Míngtiān wǒ yào qù měiguóle!” (Tomorrow I’ll be going to America!)
As seen in the second sentence above, you will use “正在 Zhèngzài” to demonstrate something that is happening in the present and is continuing to happen.
This character will be used to describe something in the past. It is often paired with “已经 Yǐjīng” (already), but can standalone.
For example, “我已经吃过了. Wǒ yǐjīng chīguòle.” and “我吃过了. Wǒ chīguòle.” both mean I have already eaten. A literal translation to “我吃过了. Wǒ chīguòle.” is “I eat passed.”
Once you practice a few times, you will see how straightforward Mandarin Chinese is in describing what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.