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Basic Verbs that are Different in Chinese and English Part II

Although I always know Chinese and English were poles apart, I didn’t realize how much simple differences between the two languages could create problems for learners until I started developing the HelloChinese app. Even the tiniest difference can create a lot of confusion, particularly when it comes to basic verbs!

After reading comments and questions from our users, I have decided to write a second post about the differences between Chinese and English verbs so that I can explain some more common verbs that I didn’t cover in part one. I hope will it help clear up some misunderstandings!

作业(xiězuòyè) – do homework

I once asked my American colleague if I could translate “写作业” (xiě zuòyè) into “write homework”. She insisted that an American would never say “write homework” but rather, “do homework”.

Since I had found this difference strange myself, I wasn’t surprised when I received an email this week in which the learner asked how on earth the word “write” could also mean “do”!

Actually”写 ”(xiě) doesn’t mean “do” at all. Chinese people just use the “写” (xiě) for “homework”. Maybe this is because most Chinese homework is paper work, so we can assume that most homework will involve having to write something.

Another phrase “做作业” (zuòzuòyè) is a bit more similar to the English “do homework”. So if you like, you can always say “做作业” (zuòzuòyè). Just remember “写作业” (xiězuòyè) is also very common!

电话(dǎ diàn huà) – make a phone call

One learner sent me a message and asked what the word for “make” was in this sentence:“他在打电话”.

“他在打电话”(Tā zài dǎ diànhuà) again can’t be neatly translated from Chinese to English. In fact, there is no word that exactly translates to “make” in this sentence. “打” (dǎ) has a rich meaning in Chinese and is probably best understood as “beat” or “hit”. It is also the correct verb in the phrase “make a phone call”.

A word of warning! Memorizing “打”as “make” might not help your future learning because “打电话” (dǎ diànhuà) is a very special use of the verb.

早饭(chīzǎofàn) – have breakfast

In order to let our learners understand each word in the sentence, we try to translate as literally as possible. For example:“我八点以前吃早饭” (Wǒ bādiǎn yǐqián chī zǎofàn.)equates to “I eat breakfast before 8:00”.

Unfortunately this caused confusion for another lovely learner who pointed out that English speakers usually say ”I have breakfast.” rather than “I eat breakfast”. T_T

In English a more general word, “have”, can usually be used to express “have a meal” and “have a drink”. However in Chinese we use more specific nouns. “吃” (chī) or “喝” (hē) should be used for consuming food or drink.

你回家(sòngnǐhuíjiā) – take you home

Usually “送” is translated into the verb “to send”. But in my experience I have found that “送” rarely means “send” in a sentence but more often means “take”.

“我送你回家吧” (Wǒ sòng nǐ huíjiā ba) means“ let me take you home”. “我会送你去机场” (Wǒ huì song nǐ qù jīchǎng.) means “I will take you to the airport”.

This is a very useful word! In order to “take somebody to some place” we “送(sòng)[somebody]去(qù)/回(huí)[some place]”.

看书(kàn shū)study

This is a very tricky one because看书(kàn shū) actually has two meanings. In most cases, it can be translated into “read a book”. But did you know its second translation is “to study”?

I heard this second use all the time when I was a student. My parents always told me “去看书” (qù kàn shū). But they didn’t mean I should go and read, they were reminding me to study! Maybe this is because Chinese parents believe “studying” is more or less identical to “reading (a book)”, just like they believe “doing” homework is identical to “writing” something.

Sometimes, I feel a little bit frustrated when I find I can’t translate perfectly between two languages. Perhaps if we could, it would make learning Chinese easier. But then, I also think this is part of the fun of learning a language. While initially they may seem difficult, these differences between verbscan offer you a window into the mind of a Chinese person! By learning how to see the world in a different way you can gain a valuable new perspective in life.

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Vera Zhang

After graduating from East China Normal University in 2005, Vera Zhang (张晓丽) started her career in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her first teaching job was teaching high school Chinese in Philippines and realized how much she loved this job. In 2007, she came back Shanghai and spent 7 years in ChinesePod. During that, she also went to America to learn language learning knowledge and curriculum editing by teaching in a high school. Now she works in a start-up company and has developed a new Chinese learning app-HelloChinese. She hopes she can share her knowledge in Chinese and make Chinese learning easy and fun.

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