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7 Major Differences between English and Chinese

There are some important differences between English and Chinese. It is important to be aware of these major differences between the two languages in order to reduce the number of mistakes you make in Chinese and to also make your Chinese better and more fluent. This article discusses 7 of the major differences between English and Chinese.

1. The Appearance – Written Words

The most apparent difference is, no surprise, the written appearance of the language. → Chinese uses characters, which cannot be sounded out, while English words use the alphabet, which allows the speaker to sound out the word because it is a phonetic language. Luckily, for language learners, Pinyin helps by providing a phonetic representation of Chinese characters. Pinyin uses romanized letters, but the sound associated with each is unique to Pinyin. While that may seem like a huge disadvantage, there is another aspect that must be considered. Chinese characters are, in some ways, like a picture. There are elements, called radicals, that hold meaning. So while you can’t sound the character out, you can pull meaning from the character.

If you know that 目(mù) means eye, 水(shuǐ) means water and that 氵is another form of 水 (shuǐ), then it’s easy to figure out that 泪(lèi) indicates the water of the eyes or tears.

Please note that some character components do have sound attached to them. After getting really comfortable with Chinese, you may be able to guess the sound of a character based on the components – but this isn’t a fool-proof way of reading Chinese.

2. Tones

You have probably seen Pinyin before and noticed some lines above a few of the letters. Those are the tones. There are 4 basic tones in Chinese.

Tones are a very unique concept for most of the English speakers. We need to pay attention to them when both listening and speaking!

If you pronounce the same syllable in different tones, the corresponding meanings vary vastly. In English, the intonation indicates emotion, but in Chinese, intonation indicates meaning. Here are some examples of tones and definitions.

/shui jiao/
睡觉 / shuì jiào/ sleep
水饺 / shuǐjiǎo/ dumplings

我可以问(wèn)你吗?vs 我可以吻(wěn)你吗?
May I ask you? vs May I kiss you?

3. Sentence Length

English emphasizes the structure of sentences, while Chinese focuses on the meaning.

In English, it is very common to see one long sentence with long modifiers including pronouns like “we”, “she”, “they” in addition to “that” and “which”, to avoid recurrences. The sentence may be long and complicated, but it is still clear enough to understand. In Chinese, the situation is very different, where a long sentence in Chinese would be very complicated and extremely difficult to understand. Therefore, in Chinese, we can only find short sentences or long sentences divided into short phrases separated by commas.

To conclude, we can say: English sentences are usually long, and Chinese sentences are usually short. When learning Chinese, you should “Get the meaning, forget the words”. Let’s look at some examples here:

The sights of Beijing are so numerous that you can spend several weeks here and leave without having seen all of the important ones.

  1. 北京的名胜很多,一个人就是在这儿呆上几个星期,离开时也没能把主要的景点看完。
    (Běi jīng de míng shèng hěn duō ,yī gè rén jiù shì zài zhè ér dāi shàng jǐ gè xīng qī ,lí kāi shí yě méi néng bǎ zhǔ yào de jǐng diǎn kàn wán.)
  2. The Great Wall traverses plains and mountains, being 1,300 meters above sea level at some points. The wall averages 7.8 meters in height and 5.8 meters in width at the top.
    长城跨越平原高山,在某些地方海拔1,300米,平均高7.8米,顶宽5.8米。
    (Cháng chéng kuà yuè píng yuán gāo shān,zài mǒu xiē dì fāng hǎi bá 1,300mǐ,píng jūn gāo 7.8mǐ,dǐng kuān 5.8mǐ.)
  3. The computer program is completely in computing mode and will only do computing tasks.
    现在,程序的显示区完全处于这种工具的模态中。
    (xiàn zài,chéng xù de xiǎn shì qū wán quán chù yú zhè zhǒng gōng jù de mó tài zhōng.)

4. Passive & Active Voice

In English, the passive voice is very commonly used. Unlike English, Chinese usually uses the active voice.

There are ways to show the passive tense in Chinese, and there are more specific words you would use to show that. So let’s take a look at some examples of the active voice in Chinese that translates to the English passive voice:

  1. Tea is drunk widely all over the world.
    世界各地人们都喝茶。
    (Shì jiè gè dì rén men dōu hē chá.)
  2. But sometimes the tables were laid outside in the gardens of stately homes.
    但有时也把餐桌摆到豪门大宅的花园里。
    (Dàn yǒu shí yě bǎ cān zhuō bǎi dào háo mén dà zhái de huā yuán lǐ.)
  3. Parties are held when the weather is nice.
    天公作美时可以看到寻常百姓家的野餐。
    (Tiān gōng zuó měi shí kě yǐ kàn dào xún cháng bǎi xìng jiā de yě cān.)
  4. Bananas are widely believed to grow on trees.
    普遍认为香蕉是结在树上的果实。
    (Pǔ biàn rèn wéi xiāng jiāo shì jié zài shù shàng de guǒ shí.)
    • It must be pointed out that… 必须指出……(bì xū zhǐ chū)
    • It must be admitted that… 必须承认……(bì xū chéng rèn)
    • It is imagined that… 人们认为……(rén men rèn wéi)
    • It can not be denied that… 不可否认……(bú kě fǒu rèn)

5. The use of Idioms

In Chinese, idioms and short four-character expressions are very widely used to make the language more vivid, live and concise.

English is not so rich in this kind of short idioms and expressions. In English, idioms are used scarcely because it tends to be more specific and direct. Here are some to read and compare:

  1. Sincere Buddhists take vows of celibacy and abstinence from meat and wine, wearing no fur or woollen garments and shave their heads.
    虔诚的僧人立誓禁欲,不沾酒肉,不着皮毛,削发修行。
    (Qián chéng de sēng rén lì shì jìn yù,bú zhān jiǔ ròu,bú zhuó pí máo,xuē fà xiū xíng.)
  2. China is a vast country.
    中国地域辽阔。
    (Zhōng guó dì yù liáo kuò.)
  3. He always looks very funny.
    他的样子总是滑稽可笑。
    (Tā de yàng zi zǒng shì huá jī kě xiào.)
  4. In retrospect, the past 100 years of human existence have been extremely fantastic, and extremely frightening as well.
    回首过去一百年,人类世界可说精彩绝伦,但也惊心动魄。
    (huí shǒu guò qù yī bǎi nián ,rén lèi shì jiè kě shuō jīng cǎi jué lún ,dàn yě jīng xīn dòng pò.)

6. Abstract vs Concrete

English widely uses abstract nouns while Chinese usually uses concrete nouns.

This comes from the Chinese philosophy which interprets the human being and his life as a microcosm within the natural macrocosm. Therefore, many abstract terms are expressed in Chinese with concrete objects from the natural world. Here are numerous examples of how this looks and what the Chinese literally means in English:

• Disintegration 土崩瓦解 (tǔ bēng wǎ jiě)
Lit. Landslides and tiles disintegrate
• Total exhaustion 筋疲力尽 (jīn pí lì jìn)
Lit. The muscles are weary and the strength has been used up
• Careful consideration 深思熟虑(shēn sī shú lǜ)
Lit. Deep thinking and careful thought
• Perfect harmony 水乳交融(shuǐ rǔ jiāo róng)
Lit. Mix well like milk and water
• Feed on fancies 画饼充饥(huà bǐng chōng jī)
Lit. To allay one’s hunger using a picture of a cake
• With great eagerness 如饥似渴(rú jī sì kě)
Lit. Like hunger as thirst
• Lack of perseverance 三天打鱼,两天晒网(sān tiān dǎ yú ,liǎng tiān shài wǎng)
Lit. Spent three days fishing and two days drying nets
• Make a little contribution 添砖加瓦(tiān zhuān jiā wǎ)
Lit. Contribute bricks and tiles for a building
• On the verge of destruction 危在旦夕(wēi zài dàn xī)
Lit. The crisis is in the coming daybreak or in the coming dusk.

7. Emphasis

English puts more emphasis on the first part of the sentence while Chinese put the emphasis on the last part of the sentence.

This characteristic is especially apparent in sentences which include logic with drawing conclusions or expression of results. In English, the conclusion is described first, and the facts are described at the end of the sentence. In Chinese, it is the opposite. First, the facts will be described and then the results, conclusions, etc. For example:

  1. I was most delighted when it proved possible to reinstate the visit so quickly as a result of the initiative of your Government.
    由于贵国政府的提议,才得以这样快地重新实现访问。这使我感到特别高兴。
    (Yóu yú guì guó zhèng fǔ de tí yì ,cái dé yǐ zhè yàng kuài de chóng xīn shí xiàn fǎng wèn. zhè shǐ wǒ gǎn dào tè bié gāo xìng.)
  2. His assertion that “it was difficult, if not impossible, for a people to enjoy its basic rights unless it was able to determine freely its political status and to ensure freely its economic, social and cultural development” was now scarcely contested.
    如果一个民族不能自由地决定其政治地位,不能自由地保证其经济、社会和文化的发展,要享受其基本权利,即使不是不可能,也是不容易的。这一论断几乎是无可置辩的了。
    (Rú guǒ yī gè mín zú bù néng zì yóu de jué dìng qí zhèng zhì dì wèi ,bù néng zì yóu de bǎo zhèng qí jīng jì 、shè huì hé wén huà de fā zhǎn ,yào xiǎng shòu qí jī běn quán lì ,jí shǐ bú shì bù kě néng ,yě shì bù róng yì de. zhè yī lùn duàn jī hū shì wú kě zhì biàn de le.)

Conclusion

From the above points, we can clearly see an interesting point that Chinese emphasizes short and clear expressions so that the listener (or reader) will easily get the accurate meaning of the idea expressed. For this aim, Chinese “gives up” long and complicated sentences which are based on grammar and prefer to use simple and short sentences. English sentences tend to be longer because they need to be specific. In addition, Chinese also doesn’t omit repeated words in order to make sure that the listener or reader will not misunderstand the meaning of the sentence.

In my eyes, this is an example of how culture and philosophy may influence a language since the Chinese philosophy and thinking is very pragmatic. English, on the other hand, has a variety of cultures and philosophies where it becomes necessary to elongate the way things are expressed. The other method the Chinese language uses to make expressions the most accurate is using idioms. Idioms are an integral part of Chinese culture and wisdom since almost each of them is a conclusion of a traditional Chinese legend and expresses a sort of insight. I hope you learned a lot about the differences between the two languages and understand how to start comprehending the Chinese language.

Orna Taub

Orna Taub

Orna Taub was born in Haifa, Israel in 1957 to a happy family with a twin sister. After the army service she studied pure mathematics in the Technion in Haifa. After receiving the MS.c she studied four years Chinese medicine and some subjects in alternative medicine. She worked in her own clinic for several years. In a certain point she started to feel an unexplained very strong attraction to China and as a result started to learn mandarin by her own. This strong feeling towards China only gets stronger and she uses every opportunity to base and deepen her knowledge and mastery in the Chinese language, history, culture and life. the Chinese language is her main hobby and occupation and recently she decided to share her knowledge in insights with other students and wrote some textbook for students.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Hi, I enjoyed reading the text you wrote and it got me thinking about sentence length, structure, meaning, purpose and form. I understand this is to help learners notice the differences in languages, but the analysis of language depends on the framework one uses. So I disagree with how some of the points are framed. Point 1. Structure and meaning. In terms of communication, English gives priority (usually) to function or meaning. The combination of function and structure gives us meaning. This is what lets us understand language and what let’s us express what we want to say. I’d say the structure maybe determined by the language, true, but It is impossible to have function without structure, one without the other. To suggest one language emphasis structure over meaning is like saying the egg is more important than the chicken. Which one comes first? Meaning? Here some research on native Chinese texts sentence length, English, and the translated counterparts. Wang and Qin’s ( 2010 ) statistical results of sentence length and clause length indicate that sentences in translated Chinese texts are longer than native Chinese sentences by an average of 2.46 words. The average sentence length (ASL) of English source texts is 18.23 words, in contrast to the ASL of native Chinese texts of 25.81 words, while the ASL of translated Chinese texts reaches 28.27 words. Wang and Qin explain the reasons why sentences of translated Chinese texts are longer than those of English source texts in terms of linguistic typology: as a typical isolating (analytic) language, Chinese usually resorts to lexical means in order to express corresponding meanings usually expressed by infl ections in a synthetic language like English. For example, translating the relative pronoun “that” will possibly end up with a longer Chinese translation, because there is no correspondent word for “that” in Chinese and the translator has to add more words to clarify the relation. Wang and Qin’s conclusion of longer sentences in Chinese translation than both English source texts and native Chinese texts is not immediately supported by Chinese native speakers’ reading experience, because people usually think English sentences are longer than their Chinese counterparts. However, the authors suggest that although sentences in Chinese translation are statistically longer, the difficulty of reading longer sentences is released by Chinese punctuation of commas that helps to shorten the clauses within a sentence. The above empirical observation is also supported by other studies. Point 2. Hmmm. Yes, passive voice is common in certain text types and traditionally when reading scientific papers that have logical positivism as the epistemological view. There are comments I can make about the other points too, but it risks being reductionist and that’s no goal. I think that you have highlighted how the languages use punctuation differently.

  2. When we speak chinese,we always like using some complex idioms,and we can use the chinese to describe some very beautiful views,just like“落霞与孤鹜齐飞,秋水共长天一色”.But in English,don’t
    have so significant sentences.

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