Chinese students often think that German is much easier for other Westerners to learn, due to the similarities between the various Western languages. This might be true for certain aspects of the language, such as vocabulary. For example, the German word Information translates to “information” in English, information in French, información in Spanish, informazione in Italian and informação in Portuguese. All are slightly different in their pronunciation, but we can understand each one immediately. However, in Chinese, we use a completely different word: 消息。Since the German and English words have Latin roots, they are very similar. However, this trick often only works with Latin-based words, and doesn’t work with words of Germanic origin.
On the other hand, German and Chinese do not have a common origin, and as a result are vastly different languages. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how many similarities I was able to find between them. This begs the question, how is it possible that two completely different languages can have similarities? The answer is that we are all human beings, therefore, there are many things that we all do in the same way. The fact that Chinese uses characters and German uses Latin letters doesn’t change this situation.
So, let’s focus here on some similarities (you’ll be surprised how many there are!) and on some differences in order to understand these languages better. Keep in mind that this is a great exercise due to the fact that comparing languages can help us to improve our understanding of the language we are learning, as well as our own.
Furthermore, students often believe that they are the only ones who are struggling with a particular language problem, such as grammar or remembering words. They often don’t realise that first of all, they are not the only ones, second, they often make very typical mistakes, and third, there are valid reasons for their mistakes. Once they understand why they are continuing to make the same mistakes, they are well on their way to improving their language skills.
Most students (and Chinese students are no exception) struggle when it comes to the different uses of nicht and kein. What is interesting though is that it’s Chinese, not English, that uses a similar structure. In fact, both languages have two main forms:
- German: nicht – kein(-e)
- Chinese: 不 － 没（有）
With the exception of 没 in the past tense, nicht is very similar to 不, and kein (-e) is very similar to 没.
Let’s see some examples:
- Heute kommt er nicht.
- Dieses Auto ist nicht groß.
- Ich habe kein Auto.
Now let’s compare these sentences with their English translations:
- He isn’t coming today.
- The car is not big.
- I don’t have a car.
Notice how they don’t follow the same structure in English. So, for Chinese learners of German, the difference between nicht and kein(-e) should not be too difficult to understand and to use, while it is actually more challenging for English speaking learners.
Both German and Chinese have separable verbs, although they don’t work exactly the same way. However, understanding that there are two individual parts that belong together but can be separated, is very useful for a learner. Let’s see an example:
spazieren gehen – 散步:
- Ich bin hier in der Gegend nur ein bisschen spazieren gegangen.
This can also be written in the present tense: Ich gehe hier nur ein bisschen spazieren.
Both verbs are split up, but in a different way. The Chinese verb is made up of a verb and a noun. The German verb is made up of a verb in the second position of the sentence (as is true of every verb) and a prefix at the end of the sentence. However, the idea is the same. Other words can be placed between the two parts.
However, there is one group of separable verbs that work almost exactly the same in both languages, though they are not that easy to use:
Here are four words/parts:
- hin(gehen) : 去, a movement away from the speaker.
- her(kommen) : 来, a movement towards the speaker.
- raus(gehen/kommen) : 出, a movement towards the outside.
- rein(gehen/kommen) : 进, a movement towards the inside.
All four can be combined:
herauskommen/rauskommen : 出来 (spoken language):
- Komm sofort aus dem Wasser raus!
herausnehmen/rausnehmen : 拿出来:
- Nimm die Hände aus den Taschen (raus)!
Please note that her- expresses a movement towards the speaker, like 来。In spoken language, this is often shortened to rausnehmen.
ausgehen : 出去:
- Gehst du oft aus?
hereinkommen/reinkommen : 进来 (spoken language):
- Bitte ihn hereinzukommen/reinzukommen.
hineingehen/reingehen : 进去:
- Jetzt können Sie reingehen.
- Mach dir keine Sorgen, ich bringe dich hinein/rein!
Isn’t it truly amazing to realize that in spite of these languages not belonging to the same language group, they are so similar?
At first glance, this structure does not seem like something that the two languages would share. In fact, it is hard to find any kind of relationship. However, if one takes a closer look, you can observe some interesting things. You see, relative sentences don’t exist in Chinese grammar, and it is probably for this reason that many Chinese students don’t use this structure when speaking German. Yet, there is another structure in Chinese that serves the same function. And that the 的 that is used in sentences such as:
So, how can this sentence, and especially the 的, be translated into German? Well, there are two ways:
- Das in diesem Haus wohnende Ehepaar geht selten aus.
In this example, the de (的) is similar to the -de in the participle of wohnen-de. So, the 住。。。的 translates precisely to wohnen-de. Of course, this is just by chance, but what a nice coincidence. Plus, it’s pretty easy to remember! However, you should note that this structure is more typically used in written language, and not in spoken language.
Now, here’s an example using a relative sentence in German:
- Das Ehepaar, das in diesem Haus wohnt, geht selten aus.
So, we could say that the 的-structure corresponds to the German relative sentence, with a slightly different word order.
That would mean that the concept or idea behind these sentences is the same. We just have to find a way to express it in the other language.
So, what exactly is the common ground in both languages? Well, let’s take a closer look. In the sentence above, there are two pieces of information that you want to connect or, in other words, that you want to combine into one sentence. One is that the couple lives in the house, and the other is that the couple doesn’t go out very often. The link is the couple, the concept that appears in both parts.
In comparing the languages, the only big difference is that the linking concept of “the couple” would be located between the first and the second parts of the sentence in Chinese, while it is located right at the beginning in German.
Let’s looks at a simpler one:
How would you translate that into German?
- Das Buch, das du gekauft hast, ist sehr interessant.
German is a language that frequently uses the passive voice. This is because it is often not that important to mention the person or thing that is causing the action. Instead, the focus of the sentence is the action itself, or the person or thing that is affected by it. This structure is quite difficult for many students, and not just those who are Chinese. Let’s look at some examples:
- Ihr wurde gekündigt.
In this case, the auxiliary verb werden has the same function as 被 in Chinese.
- Er wird von der Polizei (steckbrieflich) gesucht.
Here, you can see that even the word order can be exactly the same.
- Das Fenster wurde geschlossen.
Did you expect that? You probably didn’t!
Different types of verbs can be used in this structure in both German and Chinese. So, which types can be used in the German passive voice? The answer is all transitive and some intransitive verbs. Transitive verbs are the ones with an accusative object. In our examples, suchen and schließen are both transitive verbs, while kündigen requires the dative case (ihr).
However, these rules don’t work in Chinese. For example, the Chinese sentence 被太阳晒伤了 can’t be translated into German using a verb in the passive voice. Similarly, there is no verb that could express the idea of what the sun might do to us in German. Instead, we could roughly translate this as: Ich habe mir einen Sonnenbrand geholt.
This last difference reminds us that we must understand the rules of a language when translating; we can’t simply translate blindly.
Finally, there is also the amazing fact that there are many expressions that are similar in the two languages. This is especially fascinating because the two cultures seem like they should be so different, yet they still can be quite close. For example:
- German: Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen
- Chinese: 一石二鸟
These expressions might involve a different animal and a different tool, but the idea is the same.
- Übung macht den Meister.
This phrase supposedly came from and old man during the Song-dynasty. However, it seems that much earlier, the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero had expressed the same idea. It might be that this phrase was translated from one language to the other. Or, it could simply be that two different people came up with the same idea separately in the two different places. Who knows, but it’s an interesting question to ponder.
- Wenn man vom Teufel spricht, kommt er.
Once again, we have the same idea expressed in both languages! The only difference is that in German, we are talking about evil itself, while in Chinese, we are speaking about a man named Cáo, who is considered to be very evil.
Despite these similarities, it is of course impossible to deny that there are many, many differences between Chinese and German. To start, Chinese doesn’t have declinations, word gender, or conjugations. Furthermore, its tense system is much simpler and its word order is often quite different from that in German. In fact, the list could go on and on.
However, we have seen that the same concepts can be expressed in both languages, though often through different grammatical structures and words. Nevertheless, to realise that there are some similarities in how these languages work and express ideas helps us to understand them more fully.