If you happen to be living in a Chinese speaking environment, you may notice a lot of common errors that native Chinese speakers make when they try to speak English. These errors can actually help you learn Chinese, since if you backtrack to see why they make such mistakes, you will often notice references to how Chinese differs from English. Knowing these differences will help in your quest to learn Chinese!
One to Many Translations
Many of the mixups are caused by several words in Chinese having multiple meanings in English, depending on context. So you can expect Chinese speakers to mix these up as the same word is used in multiple situations in Chinese, whereas each situation has its own word in English. Here are some examples.
- he and she. Often times, you will hear Chinese speakers mixing up he and she while speaking English. You might wonder how one could confuse males as being females and vice versa, until you realize that in Chinese, tā (in speech) can refer to he or she, so the concept of having a different word for each is new to them. (The written form is of course different, as 他(male) and 她 (female) use different characters, but in spoken form, there is no distinction made between the two).
- borrow and lend. You might hear questions like “Can you borrow me a pencil?” The reason for the confusion of course comes from the Chinese word jiè (借) which is used both for both “borrow” and “lend”.
- problem and question. The word wèntí (问题 / 問題) can mean “problem” or “question” in Chinese. So the question “Do you have a problem?” sounds much more harsh than “Do you have a question?”
- open and turn on. The word kāi (开 / 開) is used for both in Chinese. It even extends to other meanings like drive, start and operate so it’s a wonder it doesn’t get mixed up more often!
- have and is. This is a big one. There are many situations in Chinese where the word yǒu (有), meaning “have” is used where we would use “is”in English. So as a result you hear English phrases like “There have” instead of “There is”.
- watch, look and read. The same word kān (看) is used for all three.
- big. In English, the word “big” is usually reserved for describing the size of a physical object. In Chinese though, dà (大) can be used in all sorts of situations, resulting in English sentences like “The rain is big today” (It is raining heavily) or “Today’s sun is very big” (It’s very hot today).
- Special. The word for “special” in Chinese, tèbié (特别 / 特別) can be used to say that something is very good. Eg. “This food is very special” which would be an odd usage in English.
- Terrible. Lìhai (厉害 / 厲害) literally means “terrible” but is often used in Taiwan to mean someone is very good at something (terribly good?).
- Uncomfortable. In Chinese, saying that you feel uncomfortable, or not shūfu (舒服) is a common way to say that you feel sick. We don’t have this same usage in English.
- Very. In English, some verbs are modified with very before them, like “very fast”, while other ones require “very much” to be added at the end. In Chinese, they are all “very”, so you end up with phrases like “I very like”.
- Help. In English, “help” means to aid someone. In Chinese though help also extends to doing something for someone. So if you tell a Chinese person you are going to help them do something, they may hand over the reigns to you to do it on your own, since that is one of the meanings of bāng (帮 / 幫).
Can you think of other examples of English words or phrases that are used incorrectly by Chinese, due to differences in how they translate between English and Chinese?
5 Responses to “Common Errors that Chinese Speakers Make in English”
Great to see all your examples of some of the difficulties Chinese speakers can have in speaking English. I am currently designing a course for Chinese primary school teachers, which is why I have come to your site. One of the sessions will be about use of language. Here are some additions that I have found during my 11 years in China:
1. too vs. so: Once when I was walking into my kindergarten class, the teacher commented that my shoes were ‘too big’. I was confused as to what implications. Did that mean that I was not allowed to enter the classroom. I later realized she was just saying my feet were ‘so big’. We usually use ‘too’ to mean ‘in excess’, whereas the Chinese tend to use the same word ‘tai’ to mean ‘very’ or ‘in excess’.
2. suspect vs. doubt: I have often heard Chinese say things like ‘I doubt he won’t come today’, (which mean they think he will come) when what they mean is ‘I suspect he won’t come today). Confusion comes from the Chinese word ‘huai yi’ being used in both cases.
3. Answering negative questions. I would often go to class and wait for the Chinese teacher to arrive. If she hadn’t arrived by the time the class started, I would ask the students ‘Is your teacher not coming today?’, to which they would answer ‘yes’. I would say ‘Yes?’ and they would say ‘No’. I would say ‘No?’ and they would say … ‘Yes’. Confusion can come whenever asking questions in the negative. Where Chinese would answer ‘Yes, (you’re right, she’s not coming) an English speaker would say ‘No (she isn’t)’.
4. Once, one of my Chinese friends asked me ‘How about my shoes?’ As it happened, it had just started raining, and I thought she was asking ‘What am I going to do about my (suede) shoes?’. As it turned out, what she meant was ‘What do you think about my new shoes?’. English speakers would usually only use ‘how about …’ as the particle ‘ne’, as in: “I’m find thank you, how about you?”
Hope these come in handy.
Very nice examples. Thanks for sharing, Stephen!
Why do so many English learners mix up “of” and “for”.
Any time my students see “of” they say “for”
I don’t understand why?
Good question. Perhaps these articles aren’t used or used differently in their native languages.
They over use “of course” in ways that are patronizing in English but wouldn’t be patronizing to say 当然 to one Chinese.