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Learning Two Languages


San Francisco is home to one of the largest Chinese communities in the United States. About 20% of the population in San Francisco is Chinese (U.S. Census 2000). Many children in San Francisco are learning both English and at least one Chinese dialect at the same time.

Language Differences


It is helpful for parents to know some of the major differences between English and Chinese dialects. If your child is learning English as a second language, knowing the differences between Chinese and English can help explain his/her language patterns in English. The language differences can explain why your child says things in a certain way in English as a result of the influence from his/her knowledge of Chinese.

Knowing common differences also helps you recognize what kinds of language development are typical for second language learners. You can keep track of your child's development in English and be confident that the communication styles and language patterns he/she produces are due to a language difference from Chinese. When you are familiar with common errors that second language learners make, it can help you distinguish language learning that is typical or atypical. This is important information to keep in mind as your child starts school and meets academic language demands in the classroom.

Chinese Dialects

chinese dialects

There are at least twelve distinct dialects spoken in China (Foreign Translations). The differences described below apply to all different dialects.

Top 10 Language Differences Between Chinese & English

Here are Top 10 language differences between Chinese and English. There are also some examples of common errors made by English language learners who speak Chinese.


1. They have different writing systems.
  • English has a 26 letter alphabet, and individual letters combine to represent words.
  • Chinese uses a logographic system, and symbols represent words.


2. They use pitch and tones differently.

  • English uses pitch (highness or lowness of a sound) to emphasize or express emotion.
  • Chinese is a tonal language. It uses pitch to determine word meaning. The meaning of a word changes when the pitch changes.


3. They convey meaning and time differently.

  • English uses verb inflections to convey meaning and concept of time.
  • Chinese conveys meaning and concept of time through word order.
  • Common Error:Uses the wrong verb tense to show person (e.g.,She go home.) or time (e.g., Yesterday, I go to library.) May also omit main verb (e.g., She good teacher.)


  • Verb inflections are ways to change the word structure of the verb to express different grammatical categories including tense, person, number, and gender. When the word structure of the verb changes, it expresses one or more grammatical categories.  For example, "eat" and "eats" represent singular or plural present tense where as "ate" represents past tense.


4. They use different methods to form questions.

  • English forms questions by switching the subject and verb. In statements, the subject of the sentence comes before the verb. In questions, the verb goes before the subject of the sentence.
  • Chinese forms questions by using intonation (pitch). Word order stays the same, but the pitch changes.


5. Chinese does not use articles.

  • English uses articles that describe a noun.  They come before nouns and are used to identify definiteness of indefiniteness of the noun.
  • Chinese does not have articles.
  • Common Error: Omits articles (e.g., Apple is good. I want book.)


  • Articles (a, the, an) are words that come before nouns and are used to identify definiteness or indefiniteness of the noun.


6. Chinese does not have gender specific pronouns

  • English has gender specific pronouns.
  • Chinese does not have separate gender pronouns. Chinese uses a non-gender specific pronoun that represents the third person singular.
  • Common Error: Uses inappropriate gender pronouns. (e.g., Uses he for she or she for he)


  • Gender specific pronouns (he, she, his, her) are used to represent the third person singular.


7. They show singular and plural nouns differently.

  • English has separate singular and plural forms for nouns.
  • Chinese uses only context of the sentence to identify between singular and plural nouns. Singular and plural nouns are specified by describing or stating how many there are.
  • Common Error: Tends to forget to make nouns plural (e.g., I have three dog at home.)


8. Chinese does not have specific prepositions.

  • English has specific use of prepositions (in, at, by, on, with, from) in appropriate contexts.
  • Chinese does not have different prepositions and specific uses for them. There is only one symbol that means both in or at, depending on the context.
  • Common Error: Inappropriate use or omits prepositions (e.g., I go to school in Monday.)


9. Words are formed differently.


  • Inflectional morphemes are word endings that represent verb tense (past or present) or number (singular or plural). They do not change the meaning of the word.
  • Derivational morphemes combine with root words to change the meaning or part of speech. (Example: happy, unhappy, friend,  friendly, unfriendly, explain, explanation)


  • Chinese words are created through compounding. Over 75% of word formations in Chinese are compounded.


  • Compounding is when new words are created by combining two or more root words

10. They have different non-verbal communication styles.

  • English speakers emphasize direct eye-contact during face-to-face conversations
  • Chinese speakers tend to avoid direct eye-contact in face-to-face interactions out of respect


  • English speakers have a "bubble" personal space. Proximity (distance) between English speakers is bigger.
  • Chinese speakers have a smaller "bubble" of personal space. Proximity between Chinese speakers is smaller.


  • Western communication styles: direct, explicit and verbal, informal, emotionally expressive
  • Asian communication styles: indirect, implicit and nonverbal, formal, emotionally controlled


Content on this page are taken from Manfred Wu Man FatPhilip Guo and A Guide To Learning English

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