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Three Differences Between Mandarin Chinese & English

There are many significant differences between Chinese and English because they belong to different language families. This fact presents a great challenge when native Mandarin Chinese students are learning English. The three largest areas of difference that Chinese students must learn are the alphabet, grammar, and pronunciation.

The English Alphabet vs. Chinese Characters

1. The English Alphabet vs. Chinese Characters

The most obvious difference is the written language. Chinese is a language made up of characters or symbols. Each character or word has an individual meaning. English, on the other hand, is made up of 26 alphabet letters. Each letter has no meaning of its own; a word is a combination of letters. This fundamental difference makes it difficult for many Chinese students to read English passages. In Chinese, students learn to read by memorizing characters. Chinese students learning English must adopt an entirely new way of recognizing English words and their different word forms.

Grammar difference between English & Chinese.

2. Grammar Differences

The second area of difference is grammar. The Chinese language shares meaning through word order, adverbial phrases, and shared contexts (such as idioms). In Chinese, a typical sentence is SVO (subject + verb + object). Time is expressed in individual words such as tomorrow, yesterday, in the past. Meanwhile, time expression in English is through different verb tenses and verb forms. This explains why Chinese students often get confused and overwhelmed with past tense, future tense, and perfect tense.

Typical Mistake I work yesterday. I worked yesterday.
Correct Tense I usually forgot. I usually forget.

In addition, while active sentences are common (Subject + verb + object) in the English language as well, passive sentences are also commonly used in English. Many Chinese students find this concept difficult to figure out in reading English texts and produce in their own writing.

ACTIVE sentence Farmers grow corn.
PASSIVE sentence Corn is grown.
Chinese native speakers struggle with English pronunciation.

3. Pronunciation Difficulties When Learning English

The third area of difference is pronunciation. In fact, pronunciation may be the most difficult for the Chinese student studying English! Just as Chinese and English are greatly different in written form, Mandarin Chinese and English vary greatly in pronunciation (or phonology).

Word Structure

There are few consonants at the end of Chinese syllables. In English, it is common to have consonant clusters at the end of a word, such as ‘fast’ and ‘and’. Some Chinese speakers are so concerned with emphasizing the final consonants that ‘fast’ becomes ‘faster’ and ‘and’ becomes ‘anda’; and as a result, they add an extra syllable. Other speakers want to sound more fluent so they drop the final consonant or a syllable by accident, and ‘fast’ becomes ‘fas’ and ‘government’ becomes ‘govment’.

More Consonents

There are additional consonants in English. Many Mandarin Chinese speakers struggle with /v/, /z/, and /r/ sounds because these sounds do not exist in Mandarin. Students have to learn how to make these new sounds with their mouths and tongue placement.

More Vowels

There are additional vowel sounds in English. Mandarin Chinese has no difference in vowel length. Meanwhile, English has long and short vowels. Chinese speakers usually have great difficulty distinguishing between ‘beat’ and ‘bit’ as well as ‘fool’ and ‘full’. Because many speakers cannot hear the difference between long and short vowels, they also have difficulty pronouncing these vowel sounds.

Tones vs Stress

There are more tones in Chinese. Mandarin Chinese has four tones – each character or word may be pronounced in these four tones. On the other hand, rising and falling tones in English are used at the sentence level at the end of a sentence, to present options, or to express emotion. Instead of tones, stress (emphasis) is used in English; there is syllable stress in individual words as well as word stress in a sentence. Chinese speakers tend to place stress on final function words such as pronouns (for example, her).

These challenges in pronunciation can cause a lot of frustration for the Chinese speaker! And of course, speaking affects listening. Even if the speaker has good grammar, they can have difficulty communicating with and being understood by Americans.

What are your thoughts on the differences between Mandarin Chinese and English? Have you been in situations where you have trouble communicating in an English-speaking setting? The above article contains some basic differences between Mandarin and English. There are many more differences that our teachers help native Chinese speakers understand and overcome.

If you would like to improve your English as a native Chinese speaker or work on reducing your accent, we would love to help you achieve your language goals at Excel English Institute. We accept students all year long; apply online or give us a call to get started!

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