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Tips for differentiating written and spoken words?

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Brian US

I'm not really sure on the best way to distinguish when a word is more 书面语 or 口语. My teachers will sometimes tell our class when a word is mostly used in writing, but unless I write 书面 next to the word I normally forget.

I think most universities teaching Chinese to foreigners focus a lot on writing/grammar and then have one class for speaking. Dictionaries tend to have similar translations, so is it best to go through 口语 books or other media (TV/movies) more often? Any other resources people use?

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Just a quick thought. The formal usages of words are the ones that are more stable with two or four characters, like four-character set-phrases for example. Also, they appear to have some historical background and very strict structures (for sentences especially).

Informal usages usually have very simple and flexible characters with them and would have one or three characters.

Might get back with more specific explanation later but before that i would also like to know more if anybody out there happens to know.

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Quick rule: If there's another way of saying it that is more common in casual speech, then it's probably 書面語.

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Brian US

So do you pick this up 'along the way' through casual conversation or books/media? I'm trying to go back through my vocab and work on writing characters. I figured while I'm at it I could look up a word and see if there is a better spoken or written word to go along with it.

The only time I really think about this with English is maybe when I'm writing something. I know what I want to say, so maybe I'll go back through or as I'm writing and change a word to make it more formal. This is also done naturally when speaking.

Edit: I think I'm looking for a shortcut, which doesn't exist in studying languages. Suppose it will just take hard work and practice.

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  • 10 years later...
Jan Finster

I feel this topic may be underappreciated on this forum. Can someone please explain how important the difference between 书面语 and 口语 is in Chinese?


From a German speaker's perspective, in German, sure there are some expressions that might make you sound a bit stilted when you use them in conversation. Depending on the context, you could however, actually be considered more sophisticated or educated. As far as I am aware, there is no strict line between spoken and written German that you must not cross.


Is the situation in Chinese different? 

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  • 2 weeks later...

So how easy would it be to do a diff on (literature + news) and the rest? Would this generate a usable list, possibly with confidence values based on frequency?


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On 5/3/2021 at 9:34 AM, mungouk said:

possibly with confidence values based on frequency?


oops, I fell down a rabbit hole when I'm supposed to be preparing classes...


It seems that quantitative analysis of corpora as a way of investigating stylistic variation is a research topic. I just stumbled across this book, which is way above my pay grade, but my university has the ebook so I might be perusing it later.


      Zhang, Z.-S. (2017). Dimensions of Variation in Written Chinese (1st ed.). Routledge.



If you can use a corpus that's tagged according to source type or sub-registers (e.g. Lancaster Corpus of Mandarin Chinese) then it should be fairly straightforward to generate dictionaries for certain styles/registers, or maybe even just add those tags into existing dictionaries?





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