Chinese Language: Difficult to Study? Tip #1

by China Travel
Posted: January 4th, 2008 | Updated: February 17th, 2012 | Comments
If you've ever uttered a couple of words to a Chinese person in Chinese, it's probably likely that you've heard them say that your Chinese is very good—this is a cultural obligation, don't let it go to your head. If your studies have progressed past the "nihao", "nihao ma?", "wo hen hao", stage into basic conversation, you've probably been asked if Chinese is hard to study. The correct answer is yes—even if you don't think it is. Chinese language learners will probably have heard or asked the question, "How many characters do I need to know to read a newspaper?" The answer you will hear will generally range from 2000 to 3000. This answer is correct—but only to a certain degree. It's true that you are likely to encounter no more than about 3000 different characters in any given newspaper, but what that figure fails to take into account is the number of character combinations there are likely to be. It is possible to read an entire paragraph perfectly, recognizing every single character, but understand nothing. Take the word (rán) for example, if you look it up in your dictionary, there should be a couple of entries. Maybe you'll see that it can mean roast or burn, or however, like that or so. Scan down and look at words that can come after it, you'll probably see a few entries like the following (and maybe some more if you've got a good dictionary): 鐒秂r rán'ér – but, however, yet 鐒跺悗 ránhòu – then after that, afterwards 鐒惰 ránnuò – promise, pledge (Sorry, I can't get the er in ran'er to display, but it kinda looks like a comb) So now you have a vague idea of what it means. This, however, doesn't do much for letting you know all the other instances when rán is used as the second word of a pair (suiran, ziran, dangran, rengran, turan, biran, tianran, jiran, mangran, ruoran, guoran, qiaoran, anran, haoran, and the list goes on, and on, and on). Let's pair that rán up with something else that elementary learners likely to know, (ti膩n); meaning day, sky or heaven. The result is 澶╃劧 (ti膩nrán), which means natural. To the average learner, there is seemingly no correlation between "natural" and "sky roast". That is not to say there isn't, it just may be a bit obscure. I hope this illustrates my earlier point; you may be able to read the 2 words, but still have no idea what they mean. This is one of the many reasons that Chinese is an incredibly difficult language to learn, let alone master. I have no method to help you with this problem; aside from to suggest that when you learn a new character, check the dictionary for other words that contain that particular character and make yourself aware of the kinds of words associated with it, and in doing so, try to get a feel for the word. Online dictionaries are better suited to this as they usually list the word and all associated words, whether they occur before or after the word you've searrel="nofollow" ched for. is great for this as it'll usually give you the etymology of the word. I find it helps to explain, to some degree, why things like ti膩n and rán mean what they do when paired up. Another good one is MDBG Dictionary which is more flexible when searching and clicking on characters of interest (it displays radical constructions too, great for intermediate learners).
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