Learning to use a Chinese dictionary

And why it’s harder than you think.

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.

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 a 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. 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 even my Chinese teachers sometimes struggle to explain it. 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.

Originally published at https://experiencingchina.com on October 20, 2020.

living and traveling in China. learning Chinese.