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Mandarin Chinese and English: What Are the Differences?
By:Daniel C Howard

Mandarin is the not the Chinese language, rather, it is one of the many Chinese dialects. Around seventy percent of Chinese speakers use Mandarin. It is not only the accepted written language of Chinese, but it is also considered as the business language of China.

Many non-native Mandarin speakers believe that Mandarin is a very difficult language to learn, especially for those who are used to speaking the English language. But why is this so? Is Mandarin so different from English? Let us compare them.

Difference in origin

The English language is closely related to Flemish, Dutch, Low German and Frisians, which belong to the Germanic language family. Mandarin, on the other hand, evolved from Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. The fact that Mandarin and English originated from different language families might explain the major differences between the two tongues.

Difference in Alphabet

While the English alphabet is composed of twenty-six letters, Mandarin, on the other hand, does not have any. Instead, the Mandarin written language is composed of characters. Mandarin's logographic system is composed of about 10,000 characters, of which an average Mandarin speaker needs to know only about 3,000 to communicate with the language well. While in English, you need to put the letters together to form a word, in Mandarin each character corresponds to a word, which can be combined to form more complex words or concepts.

Difference in Phonology

Mandarin is a tonal language, which means it uses pitch to convey word meanings. In English, changes in pitch help express sentiment. Mandarin has four tones, high level, rising, dipping and falling; the neutral tone makes the fifth. These tones render different meanings to words.

In addition, English vowel sounds are more numerous as compared to Chinese. For example, words like full/fool and fit/feet are typically mispronounced by Mandarin speakers. Dipthongs, like the long vowel sounds, are usually shortened to make a single sound.

Difference in vocabulary

The combination of particles with short verbs to create phrasal verbs does not apply in Mandarin. In English, this is very common with verbs like "look up to", "give in" and others.

Difference in Grammar

Mandarin is not an inflected language. The sentiment is communicated through adverbials (such as time or manner), word order or contextual meaning. Different verb forms and tenses do not convey the perception of time in Mandarin. This is dissimilar to English where much of the idea is expressed through the use of verb tense and auxiliaries, such as in walk/walks/walked or is/was/are/were. Basically, the verb system of English is more complex than that of Mandarin.

Modal verbs (can, will, should, etc.) are limited in Mandarin. English, meanwhile, makes use of modals to express varying intensities or meaning. That is the reason why, for instance, Mandarin speakers may seem to be dictatorial when they make recommendations, requests and appeals.

The word order is also different between English and Mandarin. In questions, English inverts the subject and the verb, while Mandarin expresses this by adding words to indicate a question. In Mandarin, adverbials come before verbs; whereas there are many rules that direct their position in English sentences.

Indeed, there are significant differences between Mandarin and English. But this should not hinder you from learning Mandarin (if you are an English speaker) or English (if you are a Mandarin speaker) as learning both tongues brings so many benefits.

Daniel C Howard is a language teacher living in Asia. He has over a decade of experience teaching all ages a variety of subjects. For free info and lessons on Mandarin Chinese, please visit his blog here.

You can also sign up for a newsletter full of free language tips from Daniel's many hours in a class. And as a bonus, stay updated on all the new information on www.learnmagnificentmandarin.com.


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