I know measure words are tricky to understand and some people take a while to really get them. When you first here that there are a few hundred measure words for different types of objects you might despair and think learning all these and remembering how and when to use them will be impossible. You might want to default to using 个 (ge). Don’t do this… there is nothing to be afraid of here.
To kick us off, what are measure words? I imagine you have already learnt a bit about measure words but incase you haven’t here is a brief introduction. In Mandarin, when you describe a noun or something conceptually tangible you need to define its measure first. In English we would just use ‘a’ of ‘the’ or in some cases just let the noun follow the word that comes before it. Here are some examples of how it is different in Chinese:
我 借了 三 本 书 － 我 想 买 这 张 光 盘
Wǒ jièle sān běn shū Wǒ xiǎng mǎi zhè zhāng guāng pán
I borrowed 3 (measure word) books I want to buy this (measure word) CD
There are many different measure words and they help classify the noun you are describing which is why in the example just given the measure word for each sentence is different. 本, from the first sentence is a measure word for books whilst 张 is measure word for long flat objects like paper DVDs etc.
Measure words are really important in making your Chinese sensical, and using the right ones will not only do that but they will make you sound much more natural and improve your speaking and listening comprehension. Using the the right measure words will actually help you understand others more, which is kind of the reason they are used in the first place in my understanding; they add context to the noun which allows you to instantly differentiate it from a similar sounding noun for example:
yī kē shù – yī běn shū
一 棵 树 一 本 书
A Tree A Book
In this example the measure words 棵 and 本 instantly tells you that the shu you hear is either a tree or a book even if you, or the person speaking to, is not using tones so obviously; which is often the case in colloquial Mandarin, usually when it is spoken very fast.
个 (ge) can be used for a whole host of objects and is the most usable measure word while others can be extremely specific. This doesn’t mean you should default to using 个 for everything though. It can be useful if you can remember a specific measure word but just like anything a bit of practice can take you a long way.
A trick that I found helped me, was to learn all new words with their corresponding measure words. This will help your brain to associate the measure word with the noun and you will find your brain will be unable to separate them. For instance you learn 猫 (māo – cat) and 狗 (gōu – dog) – you learn 只 (zhī) with them and your brain will connect the two sounds until it sounds bizarre to say or hear 三个猫 and will default to 三只狗.
What I definitely would not do is attempt to learn a whole list of measure words and then when taking about an object trying to go through the list and work out which one to use. This technique would take you a very very long time and will cause you to pause and fumble around at your sentences.
Good luck and please contact me if you have any questions!!!