China First Hand

7 February 2006

Language Differences

Filed under: Language — china1sthand @ 11:14 pm

Where I am living I need to learn at least a little language. Most languages that English–speakers learn are pretty similar to English. Chinese isn’t.

Well okay, there are some similarities. It’s pretty easy to adjust to Chinese sentences if you know English because the structure is much the same. Chinese is actually a simpler form because it doesn’t have determiners (a/the), there are no changes to verb endings (eg walk/walks/walked) and there are not really any tenses (will walk/walked/am walking etc). It’s like baby talk: “I go bed”. Tenses are shown by context: “Yesterday I go bed”. Easy! …But reading or writing, or speaking or listening to this language – that’s a whole other thing.

In Chinese writing each character represents one syllable (which is usually one word), so in this sense it’s quite simple. However – the lack of relationship between the sound and the character means that even if you speak fluently, the written world of Chinese is still completely hidden! The structure of Chinese characters is not built up of smaller parts like the letters of the Roman alphabet. This makes reading and writing very hard to learn. I have been learning Chinese with the use of Pinyin – this is the written Chinese that uses the Roman alphabet.

Reading Pinyin is not like reading English. All languages have rules about how letters are pronounced, and Pinyin does not follow the rules of English. Here‘s an example: How would you pronounce ‘zhi’? I think you’re wrong – want another go? Not even close. In Pinyin ‘zhi’ sounds exactly like the English letter ‘G’. However, this isn’t even a particularly difficult example, as at least a sound exists that we can relate it to! Several sounds in Chinese are unlike any in English. For example, you know where there are lots of x’s and q’s in Chinese names? It may look like crazy spelling, but these are actually pronounced similarly to ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ sounds. They say that after we age from babyhood, we lose the ability to even hear sounds that we were not yet exposed to. (This is why Japanese can’t pronounce ‘r’.) We’re stuffed then. But don’t give up yet – after a while I could hear a difference.

Vowel sounds in Pinyin are also pronounced differently to English. I used to always get confused between two different vowel sounds, and then I realised why. How would you say ‘bei’ in English if it were a new word you had read somewhere? ‘By’, right? And ‘bai’ would be pronounced like ‘bay’? Am I right? In Pinyin, these sounds are the complete opposite. Bei = Bay ; Bai = By. And that’s why ‘Beijing’ is pronounced the way it is.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for English speakers to understand in the Chinese language is the tones. There are 4 tones:

  1. Higher tone and does not change, like robotic language
  2. Like a question with the tone rising at the end
  3. The tone scoops down and then up, similar to how a posh person may answer the phone perhaps?
  4. Sounds aggressive with emphasis at the start of the sound

As I have mentioned before, Chinese tones go completely against how many people in the world understand language. I have spent hours listening to the TV, just to try to identify the tones. If you do not make the tone clear, or if you use the wrong tone, you will end up saying a word that is completely different from the one intended! I dread to think of the embarrassing consequences that could happen… 😉



  1. […] With all that happened before I got here, it’s a good thing I am adaptable! The 8-hour time difference with China made communication difficult, and as Chinese New Year was approaching I was under pressure to reserve a flight. As I am also strapped for cash, I booked an unchangeable flight – only to learn that for my first week in China, my friend would be in Japan! This would not be so bad, if it were not for the advice in every guide book: Do not come for Chinese New Year – accommodation gets full and everything is closed! How would I buy my food? How could I get around, with transport shut like Christmas day in London? How would I even get from the airport?? Even if I managed that, how in the world do I find the few beds that might still be free, within a huge city? And afford the prices that inevitably will be expensive due to high demand? How do I do all this – without language?!! […]

    Pingback by Setting The Scene « China First Hand — 15 September 2006 @ 3:42 pm | Reply

    • The Japanese government claims that there is no dispute on the sovereignty of these islands, and that they belong to Japan when they first discovered these islands in 1884.

      However, there are many records that show that these islands have been part of China for more than 600 years since the Ming Dynasty, that Chinese fishermen on and off have been using these islands as temporary shelters, and many international maps (including Japanese maps) over the last few centuries have listed these islands as part of China.

      Based on analysis of official Japanese government documents (by both Chinese and Japanese scholars), Japan actually tried to secretly steal these islands from China in the late 1880s and early 1890s. When Japan defeated China after the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, these islands came under the control of Japan.

      When WWII ended, according to the 1943 Cairo Declaration, the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, and the 1945 Japanese Instrument of Surrender, the Diaoyu Islands should have been returned to China, just like Taiwan and other territories that Japan had stolen from China.

      It is important to note that the principal author of all these three documents was the USA.

      Comment by Hon San — 26 February 2014 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

  2. […] The Chinese do mix random English into their conversations. At any moment a word I know is hurled from the background hum of chatter – and I’m startled every time! Conversations always have lots of questions, and they are almost always in the wrong place… Of course I now know that tonal communication has a different meaning here as words have tones. In Chinese, it sounds like there’s a question when there isn’t – and when there is a question I can’t tell where it is! It always sounds like the Chinese interrupt each other! The phone calls begin with ‘oi’ because it’s a greeting, so it is not meant as a disrespectful call for attention. ‘Ha ha ha’ is like yeah yeah yeah or ok ok ok – and it is not incredibly sarcastic laughter to a painfully unfunny joke. Some say Chinese are rude – but I think you can easily misjudge if you don’t understand. Here’s the most common phone conversation I hear in China. Is it pompous and abrupt? […]

    Pingback by Oi! Ha ha ha? « China First Hand — 15 September 2006 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  3. MY wife is The Lovliest lady I have ever meet, She trys to teach me chinese but begins to laugh because what I say is not what she teaches me, the sounds I make are not the same, she laughs so hard that she can not continue with the leasons. 🙂 I want to learn more than I know now. I have been to China two times and enjoy the country and people so much. I love China and its people, it is one big family and I wish to go there often and to speak better Chinese than I do now. Wonderful people and the laugauge is so interesting and buitiful to listen too. I love to hear her sing and wish to understand better when it is spoken. Shew wants to teach Chinese here in the USA when she comes here. She is an English teacher there in China for many years. Am I a terible student or do her students find English hard also. I love tyhe way that the chariters of the laugauge is done also. Such a wonderful laugauge and writing, I think there is nothing like it in the world anywhere else. Just buitiful.

    Comment by david — 12 June 2007 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

  4. Hi there i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anyplace, when
    i read this article i thought i could also create comment due to
    this brilliant piece of writing.

    Comment by Danielle — 20 July 2013 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

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