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.
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.
睡觉 / shuì jiào/ sleep
水饺 / shuǐjiǎo/ dumplings
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.
(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.)
- 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.
(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.)
- The computer program is completely in computing mode and will only do computing tasks.
(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:
- Tea is drunk widely all over the world.
(Shì jiè gè dì rén men dōu hē chá.)
- But sometimes the tables were laid outside in the gardens of stately homes.
(Dàn yǒu shí yě bǎ cān zhuō bǎi dào háo mén dà zhái de huā yuán lǐ.)
- Parties are held when the weather is nice.
(Tiān gōng zuó měi shí kě yǐ kàn dào xún cháng bǎi xìng jiā de yě cān.)
- Bananas are widely believed to grow on trees.
(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:
- Sincere Buddhists take vows of celibacy and abstinence from meat and wine, wearing no fur or woollen garments and shave their heads.
(Qián chéng de sēng rén lì shì jìn yù，bú zhān jiǔ ròu，bú zhuó pí máo，xuē fà xiū xíng.)
- China is a vast country.
(Zhōng guó dì yù liáo kuò.)
- He always looks very funny.
(Tā de yàng zi zǒng shì huá jī kě xiào.)
- In retrospect, the past 100 years of human existence have been extremely fantastic, and extremely frightening as well.
(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.
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:
- I was most delighted when it proved possible to reinstate the visit so quickly as a result of the initiative of your Government.
(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.)
- 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.
(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.)
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.
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