Chinese may seem difficult to learn for English-speakers, but a closer look at the language reveals a few similarities between them. Did you know that Chinese borrows a few words and phrases from English?

English and Chinese come from two different language families – while English uses the alphabet to represent different sounds, the Chinese language uses characters.

Chinese is a unique language in that it has the fewest commonalities with Western languages. In the early 1900s, however, Chinese citizens began to try to communicate Western ideas and concepts in their native language. It led to the creation of Chinese loan words, or words borrowed from English.

What Are Chinese Loan Words?

Chinese loan words are words found within the Chinese language that originate from the English language. Typically, the languages have vastly different language concepts and grammatical rules, but with the introduction of loan words, we are starting to bridge the gap between them.

There are three different concepts of Chinese loan words due to the way the language is constructed. The most basic form is a literal translation based on sound or transliteration. The second form is through a conceptual translation or semantic loan. You’ll discover that some words fit both forms, defined as hybrid words.

Transliteration

Because of the different language structures between English and Chinese (letters vs. characters, respectively), it can be tricky to translate English concepts into Chinese. Transliteration attempts to find familiar sounds in the Chinese language to match the sounds in English. It can be used for common nouns such as objects and things, or with proper nouns as in names.

These are a few examples of common nouns that have transliterations in Chinese:

English Chinese Pinyin Chinese Characters
ballet bālěi 芭蕾
bar
bus bāshì 巴士
coffee kāfēi 咖啡
cookie qǔqí 曲奇
microphone màikèfēng 麦克风
guitar jítā 吉他
khaki kǎqí 卡其
pizza pīsà 披萨
tank tǎnkè 坦克

The tricky part about transliteration is that the Chinese characters used for the sounds often have no connection in meaning to the English words. For example, the Chinese word for ‘bus’ is 巴士, which translates to “cling to scholar.” Another example is ‘microphone’ or 麦克风, which translates to ‘wheat gram wind.’

Proper nouns, as in names, often use transliteration. One of the most famous US athletes in China is Kobe Bryant. In Chinese, his name is pronounced ‘Kebi Bulai’ente’ or 科比 布莱恩特. It’s hard to make a literal translation of proper nouns represented by symbols, so the sounds are more relevant to the translation than the actual characters used.

Semantic Loan Words

While transliteration caters more to the English language in the way words are pronounced, semantic loan words are more reflective of the Chinese language. Semantic loan words use Chinese characters to create a mental image of the word that you’re trying to translate from English.

Semantic loan words don’t always have a literal translation, but essentially communicate the same idea in a way better understood by native Chinese speakers. Here are a few examples of common semantic loan words:

English Chinese Pinyin Chinese Characters
talk show tuōkou xiù 脱口秀
myth mísī 迷思
ice cream xuěgāo 雪糕

As you can see, the Chinese pronunciation of the words varies significantly from their English counterparts, but when translated, it creates a mental concept of the English word. The Chinese word for ‘frozen treat’ or雪糕, for example, means snow cake. Also, ‘talk show’ or 脱口秀 translates to ‘to blurt out show.’

Hybrid Loan Words

In some lucky cases, Chinese loan words share traits of both transliteration words and semantic loan words. The words sound roughly the same as they do in English, but also have a similar literal translation of the symbols used to make the words.

Here are a couple of common word examples of hybrid loan words in Chinese:

English Chinese Pinyin Chinese Characters
bullying bàlíng 霸凌
hacker hēikè 黑客

Both of these words sound similar to their English translations when you say them, and the corresponding Chinese characters also have related meanings. The Chinese characters for ‘bullying’ or 霸凌, for example, translates to ‘tyrant and insult.’

Final Thoughts

Loan words exist across many language pairs. Chinese and English share relatively few of the words in comparison to other language pairs such as English-Spanish.

Hearing the words spoken aloud is beneficial to learning Chinese. There are lots of great YouTube channels for learning how to speak Chinese.

Getting an understanding of how loan words work within the Chinese language is a great way to get an idea of the language structure.

If you’re interested in learning more, Hutong-School has lots of classes that can teach all of the common Chinese loan words to help you become fluent in Chinese!

About the Author

Nick Dahlhoff moved to Beijing in 2016 to teach English. He enjoys studying Chinese, spending time with his wife and friends, and working on his website – All Language Resources. On there, he helps language learners sift through all the different resources to help them find the right ones for their unique situation.