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?