Differences between Chinese & English

Some useful information about potential difficulties for bilingual Chinese learners.

N.B. Chinese is written, Cantonese (and Mandarin) is spoken.


  • Sentence structure is very short, although subject/verb/object order is the same (man wash car)
  • No articles: the/a/an
  • Chinese often uses nouns not pronouns eg Teacher talk (he talks)
  • Verbs don’t inflect is/are/eat/eats – these are conveyed with other language structures
  • There are no tenses: yesterday cat jump = yesterday the cat jumped, I tomorrow shop = I’m going shopping tomorrow
  • No singular and plural: 1 dog, 2 dog
  • I/me are the same word, likewise he/him etc
  • There are almost no prepositions
  • Phrasal verbs eg sit down, go on, think over don’t exist
  • Hesitate/hesitant/hesitation are not obviously different
  • No negative questions eg You’re not hungry are you?


  • Intonation – Cantonese has no intonation eg You are hungry vs You are hungry? (Cantonese is tonal eg the pitch of a word varies to change meaning)
  • Consonant problems: Van/fan, vet/wet, Sue/zoo, thin/tin, three/fee, think/sink, those/dose, right/light, see/she
  • l/n at the beginning of a word are interchangeable in Cantonese, without affecting meaning
  • Vowel sounds heed/hid, bet/bat,
  • Consonant clusters are difficult eg  train, creap, crisps
  • The last letters are dropped eg hand/hands, eat/eats, ki/kicks, po-corn/pop-corn


Centre for Language Education