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Harpoon

Multiple meanings for characters?

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Harpoon

I've seen a lot of dictionaries give multiple meanings, not all of them related, to one character... ie

进(F進) [jìn] enter, go forward, recieve, drink, eat, submit

which one is it? what meaning do you get from it when you see this character by itself?

明 [míng] bright, clear, distinct, next (day or year), ; 明白 míngbai clear, understand; 明天 míngtiān tomorrow

Another example... somehow because 白 means "clear, understand" and 天 means "tomorrow", by itself means both "clear" AND "next day"? Why?

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florazheng

It is same with English words, isn't it? When I go to Engish dictionary, I also find several entries for a word. e.g ditch

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xuechengfeng

Yeah, the same phenomenon happens in English, it's not that strange. Of course it would be confusing if you looked at the character by itself; this is why you look at it within context. :wink:

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in_lab

For Chinese speakers, the context of being in a person's name is usally enough for them to know what the character "means" in the name. I can only guess.

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Harpoon
It is same with English words, isn't it? When I go to Engish dictionary, I also find several entries for a word. e.g ditch

how is it the same with "ditch?"

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Harpoon
Yeah, the same phenomenon happens in English, it's not that strange. Of course it would be confusing if you looked at the character by itself; this is why you look at it within context. :wink:

damn... this is going to be hard. The whole reason the spoken language is so ambigious is because of the characters, now I see that even the characters aren't clear cut..

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Quest

Harpoon, there are three types of words in Chinese: zi4字(character), ci2词(word), cheng2yu3成语(set phrase). A character by itself is often ambiguous, but when used in a word or word compound the ambiguity is eliminated. Learn to read Chinese word by word instead of character by character. I know this would be hard since written Chinese does not mark word boundaries.

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ananda
I've seen a lot of dictionaries give multiple meanings' date=' not all of them related, to one character... ie

进(F進) [jìn'] enter, go forward, recieve, drink, eat, submit

which one is it? what meaning do you get from it when you see this character by itself?

明 [míng] bright, clear, distinct, next (day or year), ; 明白 míngbai clear, understand; 明天 míngtiān tomorrow

Another example... somehow because 白 means "clear, understand" and 天 means "tomorrow", by itself means both "clear" AND "next day"? Why?

Most chinese words are created by associations. Both 进 and 明 are

the examples. I think it's not difficult to find the connection between

thoese meanings. 进's base meaning is just a description of an action,

those different meanings have the same 'action'. 明 is combined by

sun and moon, so its meaning 'bright, clear' is quite reasonable. After

sun and moon were seen and passed, next day would come, right?

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Harpoon
Harpoon, there are three types of words in Chinese: zi4字(character), ci2词(word), cheng2yu3成语(set phrase). A character by itself is often ambiguous, but when used in a word or word compound the ambiguity is eliminated. Learn to read Chinese word by word instead of character by character. I know this would be hard since written Chinese does not mark word boundaries.

how does one know which is which? Do my example characters have meanings by themselves?

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Quest
how does one know which is which? Do my example characters have meanings by themselves?

Whenoneknowsthelanguageoneknowswhichiswhichandoneknowswherethewordboundariesare.

Whydontyoutakeaformalclassinchineseandlearnthelanguage?

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Harpoon

k sorry i guess i shouldnt post anymore :oops: cya guys

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Quest

I'd like to apologize if I offended you, but I was just trying to show you how language proficiency helps resolve ambiguities and confusion, and the best way to achieve that is through studying the language. The reason I suggested you take formal lessons is because you seemed very curious about Chinese, yet you didn't seem to know much about it (you've been asking basically the same question over and over again in different threads). No hard feelings...

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Harpoon

so are you guys going to tell me which characters I should learn first in order to build up a base? fingersx.gif

also: I've often heard that you need about 2000 or so characters to read a newspaper... i now suspect that this is misleading, since you also need to learn the various 2-character word combinations to make any sense of the writing, right? (ie the characters for "tong zhi" make sense to mean "comrade" if you think about it, but if you saw the combination for the first time they would be difficult to interpret and match up to the English translation :conf )

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beirne
so are you guys going to tell me which characters I should learn first in order to build up a base?

also: I've often heard that you need about 2000 or so characters to read a newspaper... i now suspect that this is misleading, since you also need to learn the various 2-character word combinations to make any sense of the writing, right? (ie the characters for "tong zhi" make sense to mean "comrade" if you think about it, but if you saw the combination for the first time they would be difficult to interpret and match up to the English translation )

You're catching on. The point isn't to learn characters but rather to learn words. Take a course or get a book that includes the characters and the ones you need will come with it. If you are really set on starting with characters, though, get the book Passport to Chinese. It has the 100 top characters and a bunch of words and sentences that use them. The book claims that if you master them you will be able to understand 45% of most published articles. I'm not sure what that means, but I didn't feel like I was getting 45% of anything when I was at that level. It at least lets you look at writing and recognize something, though.

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Harpoon

thx guys ! :o

Edit: Discussion on Cquick Trans has moved to here

If your posts are taking a discussion off-topic, please consider starting a new topic - better to have two focussed discussions than one confusing one. It also makes life a lot easier for those trying to find the information later.

Roddy

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Altair

If someone is new to Chinese and wants primarily to learn to read it, it actually does not make much sense to start with lists of characters. If, on the other hand, a person has already acquired an oral base in the language or has the beginnings of a vocabulary in Pinyin or in some other transcription system, character books become very useful.

Consider someone new to English. If the person knows nothing, it would be very ineffecient for him or her to begin learning a list of morphemes like the following (these are roughly equivalent to what characters are):

dog

-ology

phon-

phone

like

-like

-ly

house

-ness

civ-

city

-dom

urb-

-tion, -sion

-ious

If a learner does not know even what is an independent word and what is not or what is a prefix and what is a suffix, it will be very hard to make good headway with a list of 2000 or so morphemes. If, on the other hand, a learner can already speak some English, but just cannot write, sich a list becomes much more useful. It clears up the spelling of a huge number of words and gives an easy way of expanding vocabulary.

If your primary goal at the moment is to get a taste of Chinese reading and writing and to have fun, I think your instincts are already right. A perennial favorite for such people is Reading and Writing Chinese: A Guide to the Chinese Writing System by William McNaughton. This book, and books like it, mostly teach the 2000 or so core characters one needs to read the jist of newspaper articles.

By referring to the "jist" of newspaper articles, I want to highlight that most articles contain characters that fall outside of a 2000-character range. For instance, there are many, many personal and place names that occur with much lower frequence, but are nonetheless important. There is also a lot of specific, but common, vocabulary that falls outside of such a range. My personal impression is that a 2000-character range is roughly like reading at a 3rd grade level in the U.S. In other words, there would be an enormous amount of written material open to you at this level, but it would not approach the abilities of an educated adult. At a 3000-character level, I would guess that you begin to reach highshool-level abilities.

You should also realize that even before the 2000-character level, the issue of character combinations begins to loom much larger than the issue of character recognition per se. Just a little while ago, I ran across the combination 勾结 (gou1 jie2) in an explanation for a phrase that originally meant "to make eyes at someone" (暗送秋波) (literally, "covertly send autumn waves"). 勾 (gou1) and 结 (jie2) are pretty basic characters that respectively mean "hook" and "tie or join together." This combination made no sense to me in this context, and so I was forced to look it up and find out that it means "to collude/collaborate with someone." I would guess that 9 times out of 10, I use the dictionary to check on character combinations, rather than on characters per se.

If you follow the link I provided above, read the comments of the third reviewer, J. Michael Mattox, who may be in a similar situation to yours. Note also the issue of traditional vs. simplified characters, which is significant for beginners, but not much of an issue for intermediate and advanced students.

If you take the approach outlined in the book on the link, you can get the beginnings of a decent vocabulary. I need to stress again, however, that it will not allow you to make sense of almost any normal written material without some study of grammar. I would guess that if a learner took an average newspaper article, he or she could make real sense of no more than 20% of it without knowing the basics of Chinese grammar. Although Chinese lacks the complicated endings of languages like French and Spanish and the complicated word order of languages like German or Latin, I am not sure that its grammar is really any simpler to figure out for native English speakers than these languages.

If your primary goal at the moment is to obtain some functional ability in Chinese, I would strongly advise simply picking up a book that purports to teach Chinese. My own feeling is that it is actually better to postpone learning any characters until a firm foundation is built with the grammar in transcription. Depending on how you study, this would probably take between six months to two years. Opinions do, however, rightfully differ about when is the appropriate time to introduce characters into beginning courses. If you spend the money for one of the more complete courses, the course itself will inevitable provide some introduction into the world of characters and get you started on your way.

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Harpoon

Thank you for your extensive reply, Altair.. :D

My own feeling is that it is actually better to postpone learning any characters until a firm foundation is built with the grammar in transcription.

I do not understand what you mean here.

Do you suggest that learning pinyin spoken language and grammar should be the first objective?

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nipponman

Thank you for your extensive reply, Altair.. :D

Quote:

Originally Posted by Altair

My own feeling is that it is actually better to postpone learning any characters until a firm foundation is built with the grammar in transcription.

I do not understand what you mean here.

Do you suggest that learning pinyin spoken language and grammar should be the first objective?

I don't know what he is saying either. But if it is that you should learn grammar and pinyin before characters, then I disagree. There are many ways to learn chinese, and my way is not the best, but I find that the hiearchy that a beginner should follow, in this order, is:

1.Pinyin (so you can learn #2)

2.pronunciation

3.reading & writing (at least 3000 characters)

4.grammar & vocabulary.

The reason being is that, if you learn to write before you learn to speak with grammatical authority, you will be able to pick up grammatical constructions much more quickly once you finish learning to write and reach the grammatical-learning point. Otherwise, you would have to learn grammar, then learn to write, then learn to associate the characters to the grammatical patterns that you already know. Seems like too much learning for me, at least if you want to be efficient. If you learn to read/write, then learn to articulate yourself in chinese, grammatical patterns will come easily and you will find yourself grasping for a dictionary whenever you see a pattern you don't understand in one of those pesky pinyin only grammar books. At least, that's the way I see it.

nipponman

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Altair
Do you suggest that learning pinyin spoken language and grammar should be the first objective?

Yes, but only until the point of passing over the initial hump of tackling a new language, perhaps for the first 6 months to 2 years of study, and probably closer to the former. Long before you learn all the basic grammar you should begin to introduce characters into your study.

I find that grammar books that introduce characters almost from the very beginning pile too much on to early learning and divide the efforts of students. Too much unfamiliarity all at once can be inefficient and off-putting.

Where I wonder about Nipponman's advice is that learning 3000 characters will actually give you surprisingly little functional ability to read or write anything, unless you already know some grammar somehow. 3000 characters is also quite a large number to learn and probably exceeds what the vast majority of the non-native posters who visit this forum can read or write.

Also, if I gave you the definition of every character in an average newspaper article in advance, you would not be able to make much sense of it without knowledge of the grammar. Similarly, you would not be able to write intellible comments about the material. I am not talking about grammatical correctness, but about shere comprehensibility.

If you concentrate on learning 3000 characters first, you will also be left with quite a long time where your work will give you little concrete feedback, unless you simply enjoy the process itself. You will also have a difficult time retaining in your memory the actual meanings, uses, and pronunciations of many of the characters, since a high proportion of these facets of characters are actually depend on context and on some knowledge of grammar to navigate correctly.

For instance, many functional words do not have good English equivalents, like 的, 地, 得, each of which has multiple readings that are context dependent. 着 is another good example of a character that has multiple context- and grammar-dependent meanings that cannot be adequately captured in a short definition. It will be hard to remember all the pronunciations and meanings of such words without some sort of grammatical hook and feel for how the language works.

Even such an elementary word as the "hao" of "ni3 hao3" has one reading as an adjective (hao3) and another as a verb (hao4). If you have no means of identifying which is which and little or no vocabulary to support it, it will be hard to keep the readings straight. If you first concentrate on pinyin, you will naturally acquire phrases that use the first reading and will acquire the additional reading as you encounter relevant vocabulary. This is the way that native speakers do it.

It is true that there are series like the 的, 地, 得 I mention above that all usually have the same Pinyin equivalent (de5/de0) and whose differentiation will come as an unpleasant surprise when you begin to study characters; but I think that knowing that these three shapes exist in advance will do little to ease the learning process. You still have to learn when to use which character to express the exact same sound and need to do so on the basis of grammatical principles that cannot be adequately described in isolated character definitions.

If you concentrate on Pinyin first, you will at least have the satisfaction of learning simple phrases of accurate and real Chinese that you can use in conversation and that will never be wasted effort.

As your vocabulary grows to a decent level of 500 to 1000 words, it can then become interesting and rewarding to read simple stories, and this is a good point to begin using the real writing system that consists of characters and begin to relegate Pinyin to its important, but marginal uses in learning pronunciation, using dictionaries, typing, etc. At this point, the unfamiliarity of the grammar has usually tapered off, and the basic material can also begin to be presented in characters without interfering with the learning process too much. From here you can begin to make the transition from artificial learning material to authentic Chinese texts.

Once you learn all the basic grammar and bump up against the "break out" stage at an intermediate or advanced level, you will then reach the point of needing to go beyond grammar books and seriously consider auxillary learning materials, such as character lists, readers, movies, radio, listening CD's, or reading actual literature with the help of dictionaries.

At one point, when I was studying Japanese, I made extensive use of a 2000-character list that also showed Chinese readings and the forms of traditional characters. I found that using the book did wonders for my ability to learn stroke orders and break down the unfamiliarity of the writing system. (Modern Japanese character script has a huge overlap with Chinese script). In the long run, however, it did precious little for my ability to remember chacter readings in Japanese or Chinese or to properly understand characters in context. It was kind of fun, but the long hiatus between learning the material and being able to actually use the vast majority of the characters for anything substantial proved a definite mistake. I have re-encountered some of the material only after having made brief forays into the study of Classical Chinese, which is definitely not something for beginners to be concerned with.

Since my earlier studies, I learn characters only in context and use character lists only as very infrequent reference material for obscure stroke order issues that go beyond what computer resources like Wenlin have to offer, like calligrapher variations. I also favor etymological materials as a memory aid, rather than brute force memorization methods. I find that Wenlin or zhongwen.com fill this bill quite nicely and can quite easily be adapted to the type of contextual approach that everyone eventually needs to reach.

I should also allude to the issue of personal and geographical names. Many of the characters in these are of pretty low frequency outside of their reference to the actual people and places themselves. Why waste time learning a bunch of them in advance, rather than simply waiting for the relevant one's to crop up in your reading?

If you are into Qing Dynasty emperors or the history of the Chinese language, knowing a character like 熙 (Xi1) is useful, since it appears in the name of Emperor 康熙. He was a famous emperor under whom a famous dictionary was prepared. On the other hand, the character is readily identifiable from this context, and the varous independent meanings of this character do not have to be learned at all before trying to get really expert in Chinese. 熙 is a pretty marginal character. If this character appears outside the 3000 character range, you will be frustrated that you have not learned it yet when you come across it. If it appears inside the range, you will be saddled with a lot of useless bagage until you happen to read about this individual or run across other fairly obscure uses of this character.

If you are into Beijing tourism, learning the first character of 颐和园 (Yiheyuan)(Summer Palace) is immediately useful, otherwise you will probably find little use for this character for quite a long time. When you do have to learn it, context is again such a big clue that you probably can dispense with learning the associated meaning and just move on. When you do begin to encounter other instances of the character in your reading (one of its meanings is "cheek"), you can assimilate the character at that time, when knowing it has some actual relevance to what you are interested in.

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skylee
熙 is a pretty marginal character.

My brother has 熙 in his three-character name. :D

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