How Chinese is Different from Other Languages

Understanding how Chinese is unique is key to learning the language effectively

Why would a child who is simultaneously learning both Chinese and English prefer to read books in English over Chinese?

I was recently chatting with a Chinese friend who is living abroad. He has two young children and wants to ensure that they grow up bilingual, with a strong command of both languages. His kids study Chinese and English in school, speak English outside the house, and use Chinese at home. Despite being equally exposed to both languages, he’s found that he needs to actively encourage his kids to read Chinese, or they naturally gravitate towards books in English. “I saw it happen with my friend’s daughter. Once she was eight years old, she only wanted to read books in English. I want to make sure my kids feel comfortable in both languages.”

This got me thinking about the fundamental differences between Chinese and most modern languages, and how these differences impact the way we learn Chinese. When starting out, many Chinese learners don’t recognize or appreciate these differences. They can get discouraged and give up, thinking that Chinese isn’t for them. When in fact, they are encountering the same challenges faced by anyone who pursues learning Chinese.

Understanding how the Chinese language is unique will help you learn more effectively and help prevent you from getting discouraged. Below are some of these key differences along with some strategies that you can use to take advantage of them.

Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet

Chinese is the only modern language that doesn’t have an alphabet. The writing system is “logosyllabic”, meaning each character represents a syllable of spoken Chinese and can be a word by itself or combined with other characters to create another word. The components within a character, called radicals, may hint at how the character is pronounced or what it might mean, but it is far from prescriptive. Unlike learning a word in an alphabetic language, a Chinese character requires rote memorization not only to understand what it means, but also how it’s spoken.

Rote memorization is exceptionally underemphasized to Chinese learners. People can be dismissive of flashcards or vocabulary learning tools, thinking that textbooks and immersion should always be prioritized. However, because of the Chinese writing system, spending a large amount of time memorizing new words is simply a requirement for learning the language. This is one of the reasons that we built Daily Chinese, which helps learners memorize large amounts of Chinese vocabulary in the simplest, most effective way possible.

As you memorize more words, the speed at which you learn new words will compound. You’ll begin to recognize patterns among radicals and characters. Knowing more individual characters, you’ll start to be able to discern the meaning of words made up of multiple characters. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, your word acquisition will pick up speed the more words you know.

I’d also like to call out two related points. First, the reason that written Chinese can get away with not having spaces between words is also related to it not having an alphabet. Because each character is self-contained, it removes the need to add spaces to clarify where a word begins and ends. However, since Chinese words can be comprised of one or more characters, someone seeing the sentence “女孩喝咖啡” for the first time wouldn’t know which characters were words on their own and which words were combinations of multiple characters. To the new learner “啡”, “孩喝”, “孩子喝”,are all realistic candidates to be considered a single word (The Chinese speaker would know that the words in this sentence are in fact “女孩”, “喝”, and “咖啡”). So not only do Chinese learners need to memorize words to know their meanings and pronunciation, but having a sufficient vocabulary is also crucial to being able to recognize which combinations of characters are actually words.

Second, there is a common refrain that you need to know “2,000 to 3,000 characters” to be able read a newspaper. This statistic is often cited to give learners an idea of the vocabulary requirements for basic literacy. But, since words in Chinese can be made up of one or more characters, this stat is at best completely useless and at worst very misleading. Just because someone understands the words “知” and “觉”, does not mean they understand the word “知觉”.  Based off of the vocabulary lists for the HSK (the Chinese proficiency exam used in Mainland China), the amount of words (not just individual characters) required to read a newspaper is probably somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000. This is a better metric for learners to shoot for if their goal is basic literacy.

Chinese prioritizes efficiency over specificity

The Chinese language doesn’t distinguish between definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a”) articles. It doesn’t contain gendered nouns (for example Spanish words like “el libro”, “la universidad”) and has a very small number of honorifics (changes to words based on social hierarchy commonly found in Korean, Japanese, Urdu, and other languages). Verbs don’t conjugate or change to mark tense (tense is often completely omitted). The same word can often be a verb, noun, and an adjective. There isn’t a clear distinction between plural and singular.

These are just some of the ways in which Chinese syntax differs from most other languages, and all of this makes Chinese one of the most efficient languages on earth. This is generally good news for Chinese learners, but the lack of “rules” can also create complexity. Again, using the phrase “女孩喝咖啡” as an example, this could be translated into English as:

…Because Chinese doesn’t frequently use articles, specify tense, or distinguish between singular or plural we could continue to come up with over 70 different translations, but I think you get the point. Whereas fixed grammar rules ensure specificity and clarity in English and other languages, Chinese relies much more on context to convey meaning. For Chinese learners, this brings up a couple things to pay attention to.

First, avoid the temptation to add a bunch of words to your Chinese sentences. If we were to directly translate the above example sentence from Chinese to English in the most rudimentary way possible it would read “Girl drink coffee”, and this simple sentence can be used to communicate over 70 English phrases. When speaking or writing, it’s often helpful to ask yourself “how can I say the most by using the fewest amount of words?”

Second, attempting to translate word-for-word from your native language isn’t always helpful. This is inevitable when just starting out but the sooner you can ditch this habit, the better. Try building your Chinese sentences from scratch as simply as you can to avoid any unneeded language clutter and let the surrounding context do some of the heavy lifting.

Learning Chinese can often feel like you’re learning how to speak for the first time. The familiar linguistic guideposts and rules provided by your native language aren’t always helpful, and can sometimes create problems. Embracing the simplicity of Chinese and remembering to pay attention to context will pay dividends throughout your learning.

Chinese has a lot of words that sound the same

All languages have homophones, words that sound similar while meaning different things, but Chinese takes it to another level.

There are only around 400 non-tonal syllables in Chinese. When you factor in the different tonal variants, there are about 1,400 syllables. For comparison, English has around 15,000 different syllables. Put simply, Chinese has a lot of words that sound the same.

This can present difficulties when learning Chinese compared to most other languages. Understanding spoken Chinese can take longer and require much more practice for the simple fact that spoken words are more difficult to distinguish from one another. Just like context is important in written Chinese, it’s equally important for listening and comprehension. You may run into situations where you walk by two people speaking Chinese on the street, and even after many years of studying the language you cannot for the life of you figure out what they are saying.

Homophones also emphasize the importance of taking tones seriously, even when you are just starting out. By learning to distinguish tonal patterns, you’re able to reduce the number of homophones by a factor of four. This will dramatically improve your ability to discern words and help you better understand spoken Chinese.

Chinese doesn’t share a lot of linguistic influence with other cultures

Most Chinese learners are entering unfamiliar cultural territory. Direct mappings of idioms such as “an eye for an eye” or “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” that come from the roots of the ancient western cultures, are absent in Chinese. The familiar Latin influences on Western languages are also gone. Even contemporary global popular culture creates fewer bridges between Chinese and other languages. Behind the Great Firewall, the newest forms and neologisms of Chinese grow and evolve independent of the internet shared by the rest of the world.

The lack of a large amount of shared culture is a feature of learning Chinese. Even compared to a language like Japanese, Chinese has very few cognates, or words that sound similar and have the same meaning in different languages. Whereas a native English speaker might be able to reasonably guess the meaning of a French sentence without ever having studied French, or pick up one or two words while watching a Japanese TV show, Chinese almost never offers such opportunities.

Perhaps the clearest example of a language feature that is unique to Chinese are Chengyu (成语) or four-character idioms. Chengyu are combinations of four characters that serve as a shorthand to explain experiences and moral concepts. Chengyu primarily originate from ancient Chinese literature, poetry, and short stories - cultural touchstones that are likely unfamiliar to most learners outside of China or parts of Asia.

Translating Chengyu as “idioms” can be unhelpful, as Chengyu occupy a somewhat different linguistic space in Chinese than idioms do in most other languages. For example, Chengyu are much more common in both spoken and vernacular Chinese than English idioms. There are officially over 30,000 Chengyu with around 500 to 600 in common circulation, and mastering the most common Chengyu is a requirement for basic literacy.

While the lack of shared cultural influences presents difficulties that are unique to Chinese, it is also one of the many reasons why learning the language is so rewarding. There is so much to unlock about Chinese culture and history that can only be revealed through learning the language.

The sections above don’t call out many of the other differences between Chinese and other major languages such as pronunciation, tonality, grammar, and syntax. However, I hope that this list highlights some of the unique features of Chinese that are often overlooked, and presents some helpful strategies to take advantage of them.

Chinese is challenging, perhaps the most challenging language to learn in the world. By better understanding its fundamental differences you can adopt more effective approaches and realize that its challenges can always be overcome.

Additional Reading

How to Master Chinese Tones

Ignore what you learned in school to speak and hear tones more clearly

Why Most Apps for Learning Chinese Don't Work

We created Daily Chinese to change the game and help all Chinese learners grow their vocabulary

Want resources like this shared with you directly?

Provide your email address to receive valuable insights and articles to help you improve your Chinese