No, it canʼt be used to mean 'a little' (and немного can't be used to mean 'little').
Here's how I understand it:
- We have a little bread. = We have some bread. (The main point is having bread, we do have some bread.)
- We have little bread. = We don't have much bread. (The main point is not having enough bread.)
I'm not a native English speaker so you might want to refer to other explanations. Here are some answers I've found in the Internet: on speakspeak.com, on englishforums.com, on english.stackexchange.com.
Native English speaker here. I think it depends on context; mainly how the sentence is said. "We have a little bread" can mean exactly the same thing as "we have little bread". To me, the latter is a bit old-fashioned and a bit out of use. It's pretty subjective, but I feel "a little" should be accepted.
Well, if only it had a clearly marked "negative-a-little" tag... Otherwise, I think, "We do not have much bread" captures the meaning better. Мало simply CANNOT mean "a little" in its positive interpretation regardless of intonation. It always means an insufficient (for something) amount—be it good or bad.
what do you mean by normally? (and what exactly is a mass noun?)
how would I say something like "I have two pieces of bread"?
I'm not a native English speaker, so I can't see why it is not possible to say "two breads" in English... A teacher once told me the reason is that there are way too many bread types, so you can't figure how much bread are "two breads", but really... "two pieces of bread" is essentially the same as "two breads" hehehe
In languages that have plurals, some nouns are not thought to describe things that there can be "many" of—at least, not in every their meaning. Rather, native speakers think of them as describing a continuous mass of something: you can have more of it or less, but never "one". Such nouns are called uncountable or mass nouns.
Usually it is this way with substances. To count a number of things you need to have a clearly defined boundaries that make up one such object. Native speakers of languages in question generally agree that a peach, a box or a ring are something clearly defined (i.e. you can instantly recognize whether there is one peach or more than one). It is tricky with things like "water" or "oil" because when you have some water and add more water you just get water—it is not clear when you call it "waters" (and, generally, native speakers do not).
It might work the same way with collections of many items that are interpreted as a uniform mass. For example, rice or maize have clearly visible grains—but English treats these words as mass nouns (for example, if you add a spoon of rice to another spoon of rice, you still get "rice"). In Russian, all berries get the same treatment, as well as potatoes, carrots, and onions (but not cucumbers or tomatoes). Garlic, though, is an uncountable noun both in Russian and in English.
Abstract concepts can be count or mass nouns, too. For instance, "advice" is an uncountable noun in English but a countable noun in Russian.
interesting... so it kind of not have a clear rule for it...
In Portuguese I would agree about water, oil, rice, etc. Garlic is a special one as you would say a "tooth of garlic" for the small part or a "head of garlic" for the bigger part but never "3 garlics". Other than that, we would use (kilo)grams, (milli)litres, etc.
but bigger objects like bread, carrot, potato, onion, tomato, etc. are all individually countable. The same with advice, which is also countable in Portuguese. I'm not sure about berries... I guess they may not be countable, even though I'm pretty sure they have a plural form... Maybe it depends on the context.
You would never say "Give me a bread." You would need to say "Give me a loaf of bread/a slice of bread/some crumbs of bread, 300g of bread," or some such counter word as loaf, slice or whatever. If you were at table and asked me for "a rice" the stupid but grammatically logical thing would be to give you a grain of rice. What you wanted was "some rice." You weren't specifying the amount (grams, spoonfulls or whatever,) which you could do. Such nouns are uncountable and you have to give a 'measuring word' such as slice, grams or whatever to specify an exact amount. There are more problematic English words such as "chicken" or "chocolate" which can be both countable and uncountable: "Give me a chicken" means give me a whole bird, whilst "Give me some chicken" means give me an unspecified amount of chicken meat. "Give me a chocolate" means give me one of those shaped pieces from the box of Thornton's, Cadbury's or who ever's selection you have to hand. Again, "Give me chocolate" means give me an unspecified amount. If you say "Give me some apple" as apple is normally counted, you are saying give me an unspecified amount of that apple you have chopped up there.