Monday, September 28, 2009

Try Writing Chinese!

The next time you struggle to write something, think about our friends from Asia who are trying to write in this perplexing English language of ours.

Of all of my students, my Asian students, as a group, have the worst time with English writing. And, how would they not? For instance, according to “Language Construction and Grammar Differences between English and Chinese” by Larry Romanoff:

-The Chinese language has no articles.

-The word 'no' does not exist in Chinese.

-Chinese has no singular and plural. Since there are no singular and plural, subject-verb agreement doesn't exist.

-Chinese does not distinguish between countable and non-countable nouns; one money, one homework, one child.

-Chinese has no gender forms, other than words for 'he, she, it' - which have the same pronunciation. In Chinese 'I' and 'me' are the same, as are 'he' and 'him', 'she' and 'her'.

-Chinese verbs do not express time, but simply action, so Chinese has no verb tenses. Chinese verbs are one word and express a simple action. This is not a small thing. In English, the verbs carry so much of the meaning that we could often toss the rest of the sentence without loss. 'I would have had to have gone to Beijing had I wanted to do what you have suggested.' is a complete sentence in English constructed (almost) entirely with verbs; to the Chinese, it's jibberish.

-Our need for the verb 'to be' is a non-existent concept - 'I am going'; Chinese says, 'I go', or ‘I will happy’, or ‘We will always together’.

-Chinese does not have hundreds of words that function as different parts of speech with minor variations in spelling, like 'hesitate, hesitant, hesitation ...'. 'Don't be hesitated ...' makes perfect sense in Chinese.

-Chinese has no negative questions. Never say to a Chinese friend 'You aren't going to the party, are you?' If he’s not going, he will answer, “Yes”.

Imagine trying to understand and write a language where articles are as important (and as confusing to use) as they are in English if your language has no use for them. Imagine writing in a language that that has verb tenses, if your language doesn't use them!

All of this makes Chinese a much simpler language than ours and underscores the complexities of English. However, it doesn't make the adaptation any easier for the my Asian students. Therefore, every time I sit to grade a paper of one of my Chinese students (or Japanese, or Korean, or other Asian), I think of how I might fare if I were sitting in a classroom in Beijing trying to communicate in Mandarin (or sitting in Mumbai, or Seoul, or even Milan trying to communicate). For any critic of the Asians and their attempts to communicate, I say, "Try writing Chinese!"


  1. Wow, I didn't know the so grammar differences between Chinese and English even I am a Chinese. But I really learn a lot about English writing from your class. Yeah, Chinese only has simple tense, and it is more vague compared to English. One sentence could be interpreted in different meanings.

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