6 Major Differences between English and Chinese

There are some basic major differences between English and Chinese. It is important to be aware of the major differences between the two languages in order to reduce your mistakes in Chinese and also to make your expression in Chinese much better and fluent. This article discusses 6 of the major differences between English and Chinese.

1. English emphasizes the structure, while Chinese focuses on the meaning.

In English, it is very common to see one long sentence with long modifier, and use of 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 cannot be understood properly. Therefore, in Chinese we can only find short sentences or long sentences divided to short phrases separated by comma.

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

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

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。)

B. The Great Wall traverses plains and mountains being at some points 1,300 meters above sea level. The wall averaged 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。)

C. The computer program is completely in the 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。)

2. 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, there are more specific words you would use to show that. So let’s take a look at some examples of the Chinese active voice to translate English passive voice:

A. 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)

B. 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)

C. 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)

D. 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)

3. In Chinese, idioms and short four characters expressions are very widely used to make the expression more vivid, live and compact.

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

A. Sincere Buddhists take vows of celibacy and abstinence from meat and wine, wearing no fur or woolen 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。)

 B. China is a vast country.

中国地域辽阔。

(zhōng guó dì yù liáo kuò。)

 C. 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。)

 D. 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。)

4. 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 express in Chinese by concrete object from the natural world. Here are numerous examples of how this looks and what Chinese literally means in English:

  • Disintegration 土崩瓦解 (tǔ bēng wǎ jiě)

Lit. Land slides 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.

5. In English words often being omitted to avoid recurrences and to make the sentence shorter and simpler. In Chinese, in contrast, words are generally not being omitted and instead may be repeated.

It is repeated in order to give the listener or reader clarity of what is being stated. Chinese has a lot of the similar sounding words and therefore need to distinguish the words by repeating the words in a specific sentence frame. Let’s look at some examples:

1. Ambition is the mother of destruction as well as of evil.

野心不仅是罪恶的根源,同时也是毁灭的根源

(yě xīn bù jǐn shì zuì è de gēn yuán ,tóng shí yě shì huǐ miè de gēn yuán)

2. Reading exercises one”s eyes; Speaking, one”s tongue; while writing, one’s mind

阅读训练人的眼睛,说话训练人的口齿,写作训练人的思维

(yuè dú xùn liàn rén de yǎn jīng ,shuō huà xùn liàn rén de kǒu chǐ ,xiě zuò xùn liàn rén de sī wéi)

 3. One boy is a boy, two boys half a boy, three boys no boy

一个和尚挑水喝,两个和尚抬水喝,三个和尚没水喝

(yī gè hé shàng tiāo shuǐ hē ,liǎng gè hé shàng tái shuǐ hē ,sān gè hé shàng méi shuǐ hē)

6. 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 then the results, conclusions, and etc. For example:

A. I was all the 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。)

B. 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 six 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 language grammar, and prefer to use simple and short sentences. English sentences tend to be longer because since it needs to be specific. In addition, the Chinese also doesn’t omit repeated words in order to make sure that the listener (reader) will not misunderstand the meaning of the sentence.

In my eyes, this is an example of how the culture and philosophy may influence the language, since the Chinese philosophy and thinking is very pragmatic. English on the other hand, has a variety of cultures and philosophies where it has a need to be elongated in way things are express. The other method the Chinese language uses to make the expressions the most accurate is using idioms. The idioms are an integral part of the Chinese culture and wisdom since almost each of them is a conclusion of a traditional Chinese legend and expresses a sort of an 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 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.