Linguistic Research

Major differences between English and Chinese

Writing system:

Written English is alphabetic while written Chinese is logographic (Pavlik). "In the alphabetic category, a standard set of letters represent speech sounds. In a logographic category, each character represents a semantic unit such as a word or morpheme." (Wikipedia)

e.g. English: "t" represents a speech sound. It does not have a specific meaning

Chinese: A part of a character, such as “氵” in “清,” has a specific meaning: water.



Although both languages use SVO word order, as the sentences become more complex, syntactic differences arise. In English, the core structure (SVO) stands closely together, and other parts go before or after the core. In Chinese, a modifier usually goes before the word it modifies (Fu 134).

e.g. English: Last week, the boy whom you met before went to China.

Chinese: You met before the boy last week went to China.



Pronouns are normally ignored in Chinese if the referents are clear (Chan 34).

e.g. English: I like her. She is cool.

Chinese: I like her. Is cool.


Singular-plural distinction:

In Chinese, nouns are formed the same way for singular or plural forms, and the speaker usually chooses to provide a number to modify the nouns (Pavlik).

e.g. English: I bought two bags.

Chinese: I bought two bag.

Pronouns with the appropriate gender:

In Chinese, written language makes a distinction between third person pronouns with different genders, but they are pronounced the same way in Mandarin Chinese (Pavlik).

e.g. English: She is kind, but he is mean.

Chinese: She (written as 她 , pronounced as "ta") is kind, but he (written as 他, pronounced as "ta") is mean.


Pronouns with subject/object case distinction:

In Chinese, a pronoun has the same form whether it functions as subject or object (Pavlik). In English, there is a difference between a subject and an object

e.g. English: She is a good person, so everyone likes her.

Chinese: She is a good person, so everyone likes she.


Verb tenses: 


In Chinese, there are no verb tenses, and Chinese speakers use adverbial words or phrases such as yesterday, tomorrow or next week to indicate the time (Fu 132).

e.g. English: I finished the book yesterday.

Chinese: I finish the book yesterday.


In Chinese, verbs don’t change with the third person singular pronouns (Pavlik).

e.g. English: She likes the book

Chinese: She like the book.


Common challenges Chinese students face

American teachers and Chinese students who have not yet been to the United States can think of some difficulties of using English as non-native speakers, but it might be hard to realize how hard it actually is to be immersed in a English speaking environment.

What are some common struggles Chinese students face when using English?

  1. Greetings and everyday conversations are hard to follow. When meeting someone in the hallway, the daily greetings might only take 10 seconds, which can be a short time for a non-native speaker to figure out what is going on and how to respond.

  2. Class discussions can be difficult. Trying to understand what the students are saying, processing the information, and trying to think of a response at the same time using English can be a daunting task. Also, since discussions are usually at a fast pace, it might be hard to jump in the discussion with well-prepared answers.

  3. Getting the most out of a class can also be difficult. Students might misunderstand the teachers or take longer time to comprehend the teacher’s words. Therefore, it takes much more energy to stay focused.

  4. English and history reading can be difficult. Chinese students normally read more slowly in English, and sometimes have to take the time to stop and look up vocabulary and grammar. Also, when using a non-native language, memorization and comprehension usually take longer.

  5. Writing is a difficult task. Writing emails, taking notes, writing essays, and taking tests all include a large amount of writing. Students might have a hard time delivering their ideas even though they have brilliant thoughts, and sometimes misunderstandings arise. Not being able to use the most precise and effective wording can significantly impact the quality for literature and history essays.

  6. For subjects like biology and chemistry, there are a lot of terms that students need to memorize in English.

Common errors made by Chinese international students

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Common writing errors:

The incorporation of ‘beautiful words’ into academic writing wherein students employ popular Chinese proverbs or include a ‘moral’ tale might be common (Leedham). This is influenced by the usual ways Chinese students write essays.


The overall structure of essays written in Chinese are usually different than Western writing, with an indirect or circular style. This might come from the influence of the Classical Chinese literary form known as the ‘eight-legged essay’. These essays are highly structural and require the use of lengthy words and complicated sentence structures.

​Other grammatical errors because of the differences between Chinese and English  can be found here.


A word-to-word translation list is often provided for students to memorize to prepare for Gaokao, however, no information is provided as to the usage or formality.

Sample English essays for Gaokao also have a big impact on students. They are not written by native speakers, and students are sometimes required to memorize them to prepare for English exams. Eventually, students will learn to misuse certain phrases from these sample essays.




























The two languages share very few borrowed words, so that it is much more difficult for Chinese students to learn English compared to Spanish or German speakers (Pavlik).


Common speaking errors: 

​​As pinyin is widely taught in China, Chinese students are familiar with English Alphabet. But the sound-to-letter correspondence is not consistent between pinyin and English spelling. (Pavlik)

e.g. "q" is pronounced as "ts" in Chinese, but it sounds like "k" in English.


The only consonant sounds that can end a syllable in Chinese are /n/, /ŋ/, and /ɻ/. As a result, an English word that ends with a consonant other than these is difficult for Chinese speakers to pronounce (Pavlik).

e.g. took might be pronounced as as [tʊkhə] instead of [tʊk], inserting a vowel in order to shift the final consonant to the beginning of a new syllable (Pavlik).

They also sometimes to drop the final consonants of a word (Pavlik).

e.g. "Card" might be pronounced as "car."


English is a stress-timed language, meaning that a stressed syllable receives a full “beat” and its vowel is fully cronunced, while an unstressed syllable is passed over quickly and its vowel is usually reduced to a [ə]. In Chinese, very few vowels are reduced. Most words display full vowels in every syllable, and each get about the same amount of time (Pavlik).

e.g. "Beat" might be pronounced as "bit."

Consonant cluster don’t exist in Chinese. In addition, many consonant clusters in English contain the especially challenging “r” or “l” sounds— “tr”, “dr”, “pl”, “cl”, “fr”, “fl”, “pr”. Chinese students might add vowel sounds between consonant clusters, and substitute consonant sounds that are easier fo to say. 

e.g. "Drink" might be pronounced as "dilink"

R” and “V” sounds don’t exist in Chinese. As a result, it might be hard for Chinese students to pronounce them.

e.g. "Very" might sound like "wary."

The “eh” sound is confused with an “ahe” sound.

e.g. "Bed" might sound like "bad."

Double “ll” sounds are also hard for Chinese students to pronounce.  Students might substitute an “n” sound for the “l” sound in their English word pronunciations.

e.g. "Fall" might sound like "fawn"


Pronouns with the appropriate gender: In Chinese, written language for pronouns are different between different genders, but they are pronounced the same way in Mandarin Chinese (Pavlik). Therefore, students might use pronouns with the wrong gender when speaking fast.


In English, tones belong to thought groups, and each thought group has its own pattern. Which words are grouped together and which is intonation patterns they carry can change the implication of the sentence. In Chinese, each word has its own tonal pattern. (Pavlik). It is challenging for Chinese students to extend an "annotation melody" over a whole thought group, or to use intonation to express other types of meaning, such as marking a statement as finished/unfinished, emphasizing a word, asking a question, etc. (Pavlik).



Pavlik, Abigail, "Teaching English Language Learners from China" (2012). Honors Theses and Capstones. 69. 

Fu, D. (2003). An island of English: Teaching English in Chinatown. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Chan, A. Y. W. (2004). Noun phrases in Chinese and English: A study of English structural problems encountered by Chinese ESL students in Hong Kong. Language, Culture & Curriculum.