Why is learning Chinese so hard? (3) Learning to use a dictionary.

I never thought this would become such a long series, but there is so much to discuss. So here it is, the third part of my “Why is learning Chinese so hard?” series.

When learning a new language or moving to a foreign-speaking country, you naturally rely on your standard dictionary or Google Translate. Here is why this approach does not work too well in Chinese. Learning to use a Chinese dictionary is quite a challenge in itself.

(Much more could be said about using a Chinese dictionary before the digital age. But as most people today will solely rely on electronic dictionaries I will focus on the digital approach only.)


Your dictionary only gets you so far…

I sometimes see classmates use the Google Translate App when working on a task in class or for homework preparation. Google Translate (and similar apps) are great for a quick-and-dirty Chinese to YourLanguage translation. For example, the Shanghai government will sometimes send information or announcements via SMS. I don’t bother trying to read and understand them in Chinese. Often they talk about something like pandemic prevention (as were are currently facing the global outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in 2020) (not the kind of vocabulary that’s covered in my Chinese books). So I just copy the message into the translation app and read what it says. This works well enough.

If you want to communicate with a Chinese person quickly, they might also help. Real-time speech translation can sometimes be a lifesaver. But for actually learning Chinese this is much less useful. There are several reasons for that and I have already mentioned a few of them in my previous posts.

Chinese characters have a meaning, but are not necessarily a “word”. As you learn both, characters as well as words, it is easy to get confused. Looking up a word in your Chinese dictionary often provides many different characters and words as translation. Pleco is doing a superb job in providing background information and examples for each entry, however it is still difficult to use it without some deeper knowledge of the Chinese languages and its structures. This is also one of the reasons, why machine-based translation for Chinese is very difficult and not yet available at a level that language translation for other language combinations is. Let’s dig a little deeper.


The many ways in which you can “hear”

Let’s say you want to say something about “hearing”. Here is what Google Translate, Apple Translate and Pleco offer as translation.

As you can see, there are is a very long list of possible translation. One of the reasons for this is context. Of course, the context is also important in a language like English. The words “hear”, “listen” and “understand (acoustically)” are connected, but have slightly different meanings. All somehow relate to sound making it’s way into your consciousness. However, the way English differentiates between the three words is not necessarily the same way as another language (and culture) differentiates the three words. This leads us to the concept of Emotional Intelligence, which is a separate topic in itself (which I plan to write about in a future post). For now, let’s just look at ways in which the Chinese combine information and relations via specific structures.

A very different way of thinking: Complements

Chinese not only uses different words for with subtle differences in meaning. In addition, many expressions that would use subordinate clauses in other languages are specific character combinations in Chinese. This is usually called “complements”. There are various types of complements:

  • Complement of direction: This is used to indicate the direction of movement. This structure is closely related to the use of some prepositions in the English language: go up, take out, move over, etc. However, often this is combined with the direction towards or away from the speaker (which is valid for people as well as things). Thus, it usually consists not only of two, but three parts. Some uses of this complement type are more intuitive than others. There is a fixed set of combinations which are commonly used. (上下进出回过起 combined with 来去)
  • Complement of ability: This relates to someone being able, willing or available to do something in a general setting. For example: “Can you eat spicy dishes” (你吃得了辣的吗?) in Chinese is expressed as “eat” (吃) + “yes/no” (得/不) + “can” (了)
  • Complement of result: This complement relates the result of an action. The simple form is “finish doing homework” is again rather literately translated as 作业做完 (“homework” + “do” + “finish”). But there are other ways which do not relate to the way we would express this in English. Some examples are “repair” (combined with “good”) or “wash” (combined with “clean”).
  • Complement of degree: This has the function of an adverb, it’s usually explained in the context of the three “de’s”. To speak fast (说得快) is one such example.

So let’s have a look at how to use the different versions of “hear”:

  • To subconsciously hear a sound is expressed with simply using 听, for example “listen to music” is 听音乐 (tīng yīnyuè).
  • If you want to ask someone if they actually heard (and consciously processed) the sound or if they can hear your voice via a bad phone connection, you will use 听见 (tīngjian) or 听到 (tīngdào). In this case 见 and 到 are result complements: did you actually hear what you heard? (见 and 到 basically express that the sound has arrived in your mind). To say you have or have not heard the sound, you will use 得 or 不 in between both characters. So “Yes, I heard what you said” is 听得见, “No, I did not hear what you said” is 听不见.
  • If you are a language learner like me and try to hear and understand, there is another way of expressing this: if you heard a sound consciously, but you simply don’t know it’s meaning it will be 听不懂. Here, 懂 is also a result complement.
  • If you heard a rumor or something else via vague channels, the correct expression to use is 听说. It nicely expresses “I heard something being said”.
  • And as you can see from the screenshot above, there is even more (which I am not yet familiar with).

Challenge your intuition

The examples above are still somewhat logical. It can get much stranger. Something I just learned is “to guess”, in Chinese 猜 (cāi). In a sentence, where you want to say “I have solved it, I want to take a guess“, you will use 猜 (cāi) in combination with 出来 (chulai) as a complement. I wish I could explain the proper logic, but I can only rely on my feeling as well. 出来 (chulai) means “come out”, so you can image the guess to come out of your mouth into this world in saying 猜出来 (cāichulai).

The important point to realize is that many of the characters you see in your dictionary are not really meant to be used standalone. When I started to learn the language, this was not clear to me at all. Now I understand, why sometimes Chinese people looked at me with a puzzled expression their face, when I had simply picked the first word in Pleco. Sometimes you have to use the character alone, sometimes you have to use a specific word to express what you want to say. Often, there will be a complement or an object used together with the character (if it’s a verb). As always, it usually depends on the combination and the context.

The importance of rhythm

Another reason for using different words in different cases is the rhythm of the Chinese language. Sentences are apparently nicer sounding with equally long blocks of syllables. This was stressed often by our teachers and explained in various examples, as in the one you can see below.

There might be various ways of expressing one thing, like in the example below, but one will “sound nice” (好听).

There is something to be said about the use of symmetric syllables in the Chinese language. This theme came up often. As you can see in the image below, also from one of my classes, the different parts of the sentence should have an equal number of syllables as a pattern in order to sound harmonious.

The first part starts with a 3-syllable pattern and is followed by a three-syllable pattern, thus the 4-syllable pattern in the second part should also be followed by a 4-syllable pattern, which is why the 也 should be added

This even comes up in specific structures sometimes. One example is the character 各 (gè), meaning “any”. It can only be used with a one-syllable character. For example “every country” can be expressed as 各国 (gè guó)。Technically country is translated as 国家 (guójiā) though. If you want to use this word in combination with 各( gè) you will have to add the measure word 个 (gè) to make it a 2+2 sound: 各个国家 (gè gè guójiā).

As I learn more and more Chinese, another important pattern arises in the context of melody. Often, words are almost randomly shortened or used in full depending on the context. The reason for this is the melody of the language, where sometimes there is simply no room for longer words. Or as one of my Chinese teachers put it: people are sometimes lazy. Here are some examples:

  • 但是 (dànshì) means “but”, but more often than not I see only 但 (dàn) in the sentence, which refers to the same “but”.
  • 比较 (bǐjiào) means “to compare”, but is sometimes shortened to 比 (bǐ). The trouble is 比 (bǐ) can also simply mean “than” or “to” in a comparison or score.
  • 要不然 (yàoburán) means “otherwise”, but can just as well be shortened to either 要不 (yàobù) or 不然 (bùrán). Are you confused yet?

If you are interested in this topic, please have a look at my Chinese Language section. I will create more content as I continue my journey of learning Chinese.

For information sources and some materials to use for learning Chinese, click here.