How are Chinese and English Language Different? A comparative study for Chinese learning and teaching

On Wednesday 2nd March 2022, the UK Campus of Peking University HSBC Business School was honoured to invite Prof. George Xinsheng Zhang (张新生教授), from the American International University in London who is the director of the Centre for Modern Languages of the University, to present his research on “A contrastive Analysis of English and Chinese and its implications for learning and teaching of Chinese Language”.  The presentation was attended by Peking University students and academics and other 43 online participants. Prof. Zhang has been previously invited to give a speech and chaired “Professors’ Dialogue” in our Inaugural Hongmen Dialogue last December. Impressed by Prof. Zhang’s insightful talk in Hongmen Dialogue, this time we have him back on the Campus to give a seminar for our students and academics to discuss cultural difference between English and Chinese and how this difference influences the learning of Chinese language. This talk has also attracted teachers and Chinese learners outside the school to join online.

Professor Zhang is currently an honorary member of Chartered Institute of Linguistics (CIoL) and Vice President of European Association of Chinese Teaching (EACT). He was the first local director of London Confucius Institute, the first Confucius Institute in the UK, and the director of the Language Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He led and coordinated the European Benchmarks for Chinese Language project (EBCL) between 2010 and 2011.

Professor Zhang started his talk with an interactive question about Chinese culture - he invited students to talk about the concept of "Chinese culture" based on their own learning experience. The students actively shared their views: "Dumplings, red colour, Chinese Kung Fu , Guanxi, etc" Then Professor Zhang shared his understanding of "culture" and pointed out:
language is indispensable in order to “interpret” and “make sense” of the world. Chinese is a very different language compared with most European languages linguistically, and embodies some fundamental Chinese cultural characteristics.

Next, Professor Zhang used a series of vivid examples to illustrate the embodiment of cultural elements in the aspects of phonetics, lexics, syntactics as well as the writing system and discourse of Chinese.
Many vivid and humorous examples cited by Professor Zhang left a deep impression on our students. Such as:
The character (mă) can be used to make different words like:
公马,母马,老马,小马,矮马,斑马, 海马

This reflects the Chinese people's initial cognition of the animal category. But in English the corresponding word “horse” is not part of the words of “stallion, mare, nag, foal, pony, zebra, hippopotamus”.
Another important example is that in Chinese the word order in sentence follows the Chinese idea of “天时(timing)-地利(location)-人和(people and event)”, which is quite different with the English word sequence:

  1. I (1)  had (2)  a meal (3) in a Chinese restaurant (4)  in Chinatown (5)  last night (6).
  2. (1) 昨天晚上 (6) 在中国城的 (5) 一个中餐馆 (4) 吃了 (2) 顿饭 (3)
  3. Subject – time – place – verb - object
These lively and interesting examples aroused heated discussions and stimulated students' interest in learning Chinese.

Finally, Prof Zhang has given some suggestions on Chinese learning and teaching. He pointed out: it is very important to be aware of key differences between Chinese and English and focus on differences, to understand linguistic and cultural implications of these differences and to develop a different frame of mind to accommodate the differences.

After this talk. Prof Zhang had a lively discussion with students and online participants. He shared his points of view on “how to design cultural activities in Chinese classes”, “Critical age for Language Acquisition” and suggestions for the adult language learners.

(Reported by Dr Mengqiu Gui)