The Differences between Chinese and English

difference between english and chinese

Language is a part of culture, and language habits are fundamental to people’s understanding of their culture. Chinese and English are the two languages which widely used around the world. However, there are many differences between the two cultural backgrounds, resulting in many differences between the two languages. People often make a lot of misunderstandings when translating between the two languages because they cannot express semantics accurately. In daily life, we often encounter such a situation. Native speakers burst into laughter when hearing a wonderful speech, while non-native speakers do not understand what is funny at all. If you’d like to avoid embarrassing situations, be eager to understand what the other party is saying and let them understand what you are saying, two things are essential. First is to learn more about their culture, and second is to understand the differences between Chinese vs. English.

There are significant differences between Chinese and English in terms of the alphabetic system, vocabulary, grammar, dictionaries, and sentence structure. These differences often cause deviations and major misunderstandings when converting between Chinese and English.

1. Chinese and English: The alphabet system

In terms of the alphabet system, English uses the Latin alphabet, which has 26 letters. English is combined using different rules to make words, and each word has its own meaning. Chinese mainly uses Chinese characters, although young Chinese also uses pinyin to help standardize pronunciation, in fact, some elderly people cannot use pinyin they use Chinese characters directly to pronounce the words instead. There is an interesting phenomenon in China that some foreigners who live in China can speak Mandarin fluently but barely read Chinese characters. When they speak in public, they hold cue cards written in pinyin. In fact, the native Chinese people can’t immediately reflect the meaning of the content on the cue cards and need to convert pinyin into Chinese characters in their minds to understand.

Additionally, regarding pronunciation characteristics, 44 phonemes (the smallest unit of speech in English is a phoneme) in English are divided into vowel phonemes and consonant phonemes. Meanwhile, Chinese characters are like big trees. The “roots” of the tree are “single-style characters”, which are also called “pictographic characters”. The Chinese characters have, through different innovations, combined new characters. For example, “木”(wood) is a single character, which can form new Chinese characters such as “树” (tree) and “森”(forest). “Single character” is the root of Chinese characters, which can be regarded as the “root” of Chinese characters.

2. Vocabulary

There are also obvious differences between Chinese and English in vocabulary. The development of English words has a process of change in which words become longer and longer, however, Chinese words are always short. Early English words such as “you”, “me”, “sheep”, and “dog”, etc. are simple words consisting of only a few letters, but with the development of science and technology, words have become increasingly complex, such as “Spacesuit”, “Pneumoconiosis”, and “hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia”. Although Chinese words have grown from easy to complex in history, then they have been simplified. Modern Chinese words are almost used as short words.

3. Differences Between Chinese and English Grammar

There are even more differences between Chinese and English in grammar. The differences mainly come from four aspects, tense, passive, prepositions, and clauses.

The first difference is the difference in tense. Chinese does not have tenses, but English has them. English tenses are divided into simple present tense, simple past tense, simple future tense, present perfect tense, past perfect tense, and future perfect tense. Chinese mainly relies on context and word infer tenses. Chinese can imply or indicate the time of events by means of verb modifiers, time adverbials, context, etc. English is more normative, while Chinese emphasizes the understanding of the overall context rather than the tense of the verb itself.

The second difference is the difference in passives. The grammar of English is more accustomed to the use of passivity, especially in scientific and technical articles. Although Chinese grammar also uses passives, it is rarely used. Active voice is usually used more in Chinese. For example, “it is imagined that” in English, while according to the Chinese thinking directly translated into English is “people imagined that” or “many people think that”. Chinese pay more attention to the person who performing the action and pay less attention to the person who receiving the action. Therefore, in Chinese, we more often use the active voice to express events or actions. For example, if we want to express “the book was read by him” in Chinese, we can say, “he read the book”. Here is the active voice, focusing on the person performing the action rather than emphasizing the book.

The third difference is prepositions. English makes more use of prepositions than Chinese. There are many seemingly meaningless prepositions in English they are not only meaningless but extremely important and extremely meaningful. Prepositions are often instead of verbs in English to emphasize states of an event rather than actions of the event, but Chinese prefers to use verbs or combinations of verbs and prepositions. Taking two examples. First is the event of “shower”, we want to tell others “I’m in the shower” in English, but in Chinese thinking, we often use “I’m taking a shower”. Second, when talking about some topic, in English, we would say, “We’re on this topic” but in Chinese, we would say, “We are talking about this topic” instead.

The fourth difference is clauses. English clauses often have hidden meanings that need to be understood. It is not considered to have hidden meaning under the Chinese reading habit. Two classic example sentences for native Chinese speakers learning English are “My brother who lives in New York came to visit me this week.” and “My brother, who lives in New York, came to visit me this week.” The two sentences look no different except for a comma, but the hidden meanings are quite different. The former means “I have several brothers”, and the latter means “I have only one brother”. A direct translation from English into Chinese can only know that my brother came to visit me this week, but others don’t know how many brothers I have, one or more are possible.

4. Dictionaries

The content and structure are different between the dictionaries of English and Chinese.

The contents of an English dictionary include parts of speech, pronunciation, interpretation, phrases, example sentences, and related lexical information. Some English dictionaries include more information, such as the etymology of words, synonyms, antonyms, derivatives, and so on. English dictionaries usually explain words in English as the main language; however, some English dictionaries may include explanations or translations in other languages. Searching for characters in the Chinese dictionary is based on characters, not words. The contents of a Chinese dictionary include pinyin, radicals, strokes, words, explanations, parts of speech, and example sentences. Chinese dictionaries may also contain other related content, such as word usage, collocations, idioms, and sayings. Unlike English dictionaries, Chinese dictionaries usually do not provide the pronunciation of words but provide the pinyin of Chinese characters.

The structure of English dictionaries usually arranges words in alphabetical order, one word by one entry, and the entries contain relevant information about the words, such as parts of speech, pronunciation, interpretation, phrases, example sentences, etc.  Sometimes English dictionaries also use special symbols to mark some special details. Chinese dictionaries are available in various arrangements, such as radicals, stroke numbers, and pinyin. Each entry contains the Chinese character’s pinyin, radicals, and stroke numbers and the words formed by the character. Almost all Chinese dictionaries contain the explanation of the words and example sentences to assist readers understand the words.

5. Sentence structure

Chinese and English have great differences in Sentence structure.

Chinese uses more short sentences and more punctuation, while English uses more long sentences and less punctuation. Therefore, there is a rule of conversion between two languages, that is, when translating English into Chinese, more short sentences should be used, and when translating Chinese into English, more long sentences should be used. English is translated into Chinese, more short sentences should be used, while when Chinese is translated into English, more long sentences should be used. Besides the difference in the length of sentences, English also uses prepositional phrases, attributive clauses, non-predicate verbs, etc., to make long sentences, but when it is changed to Chinese, it becomes a simplification; long sentences become short sentences. All these reflect the characteristics fully that English prefers to make long sentences while Chinese prefers to make short sentences. Chinese is a dynamic language that prefers to use verbs; meanwhile, English is a static language that prefers to use nouns, so when learning Chinese, we can use verbs, when learning English, we can use nouns.

No matter what language it is, Chinese or English, do as the Romans do when learning a language. Each language has its own commonly used words and expressions. By comparing the difference between Chinese and English, we can understand the differences in vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and other aspects between them, which can not only help us study easily but also avoid misapplying grammar rules from our native language to the target language. Language and culture are interwovenness, vitally interrelated, knowing the background of the culture and idioms can help us better understand the language we study. In the process of language learning, by comparing the differences between different languages, understanding the characteristics of the alphabetic system, vocabulary, grammar, dictionaries, and Sentence structure, mastering common vocabulary and expressions, understanding the cultural background of the language, and creating a language environment, we can learn a non-native language smoothly.

About Terry Qin

Terry Qin is a 27-year-old R&D engineer from Shenzhen currently living in the US. He is interested in programming, new trends and blogging.