Basic Verbs that are Different in Chinese and English

When I learned English, I always made some mistakes which known as ‘Chinglish’ where I would use English in a Chinese way. Now as a Chinese teacher, I know the words or grammar points that I struggled with are difficult for my native English-speaking students as well. It’s a huge topic that I don’t think I can talk about it in one sitting.. So I decided to start with some very simple and common verbs. Before you start to read, please promise me you won’t tell others that I used these funny English expressions before.

看书(kàn shū)- read a book

The very first thing I remembered I always said was ‘see a book’ instead of ‘read a book’. Since in Chinese, ‘看(kàn)(see)’ is the right verb for book not ‘读(dú)(read)’ because you read a book by looking at it.

喝汤(hē tāng)- eat soup

‘Drink soup’ is another mistake I made. So for you Chinese learners, please remember you don’t ‘吃(chī)(eat)’ soup but ‘喝(hē)(drink)’ it. I didn’t think that it made sense to use ‘eat’ for soup until one day I realized the western soup was quite different from Chinese style. If you can’t remember ‘喝汤(hē tāng)’ I suggest you go to an authentic Chinese restaurant and order a soup.

吃药(chī yào)- take medicine

‘Eat a pill’ used to be my English way for saying ‘take medicine’. I have to say I still think the Chinese verb ‘吃(chī)(eat)’ makes more sense than ‘take’. It’s the same action as you eat your meal, right?

坐车(zuò chē)- take/ride a bus

For a long time, I couldn’t get the verb ‘坐(zuò)(sit)’ out of my brain when I said ‘take/ride a bus/train/plane’. So for Chinese learners, please remember it’s not ‘拿(ná)(take)’, not ‘骑(ride) but ‘坐(zuò)(sit)’+车(chē)(vehicle)/火车(huǒ chē)(train)/飞机(fēi jī)(airplane)’ because you sit within these vessels..

开电脑(kāi diàn nǎo)- turn on a computer

If you hear a Chinese person say, ‘could you please open your computer?’ don’t be surprise. He/she probably means ‘turn on your computer’. In Chinese, ‘turn on’ and ‘open’ are the same word ‘开(kāi)’. ‘开电脑(kāi diàn nǎo)(turn on a computer)’ and ‘开窗(kāi chuāng)(open windows)’ seem like the same type of action to me.

I really like this topic. I think it not only shows the difference of words but also shows the different reflections of this world between two nations. For example, I had a disagreement with one of my students. I thought radish and carrot belonged to same biological species because they were both named as ‘萝卜(luó bo)’ in Chinese. But she couldn’t agree with me at all because she couldn’t see any connection between the two English words. Isn’t that interesting? If you are also interested in this topic, please let me know. I think that’s enough for this time. I hope these tips will help your Chinese and to understand ‘Chinglish’ better. See you next time.

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.

  • Siddharta Gautama

    – you read a book, because you do not just stare at it and wait for the magic, but read the letters/words/sentences.
    – you eat soup, because “it’s the same action as you eat your meal, right?” you put into your mouth, chew and swallow, sometimes drinking it is fine, as long as its mostly liquid.
    – you take medicine, because its not the same action as eating. Some medicine might be liquid that you drink, a pill you need to chew, or swallow it whole and drink water next to it, or it might be a spray or even other forms of medicine.
    – you take or ride a bus, because very often there is no empty seat, especially in China.
    – you turn on the computer, because if you would open it, a lot of dust would fly into it. You turn it on because its electric, and its the electricity that you turn on. Whereas opening things usually means doing mechanical movements to reveal something or removing some kind of obstruction to access the contents of some container.

    These are not my viewpoints, just opposing viewpoints to your personal viewpoints influenced by your Chinese native language. Since I speak multiple languages, I can accept all these viewpoints and even further ones. There is no right or wrong when it comes to language differences.