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Guessing words from context. Is this possible in Chinese?

Jan Finster

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I watched a video by Paul Nation where he talked about reading at the appropriate level (98% comprehension rate) so that you can pick up unknown words by guessing their meaning from context. As a non-native English speaker, I know this works wonderfully in English, but I wonder if there is such a thing when reading Chinese (?)


If I do not even know or recognize the characters in question, then guessing the meaning from context does not sound possible. Of course you could say: "I guess [insert unknown character] means XYZ..." but  then you still do not even know what the pinyin and tones of this word are...

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It seems you're referring to Stephen Krashen's theory on "comprehensible input" and reading at the level of "i+1" where "i" is your current level.  Which probably means @imron will arrive very soon and give us some really useful links to posts here on the forums from some years back... 🙂


Even if you don't know the character, often the components or radical will give a clue, which might be made clear by the context.


Weak example: 火山

Maybe better example: 臭    (nose + dog = ?)

What I find weird though is when you can infer (more or less) the meaning but don't know how to pronounce it, which I suppose is what you're getting at... How does one's internal monologue (or sub-vocalisation) go when the pronunciation isn't known?


(I guess the answer is not to sub-vocalise... but that's not easy)


As you say it often works in a language like English where you can more or less work out the pronunciation (with many, many exceptions — including for native speakers learning as an L1), but for a language like Chinese you're stuck, unless you just guess based on what you think might be a sound component.



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I think it's possible in Chinese, and maybe even more so than other languages.


In my case, I got what used to be called a "classical" education, meaning lots of Latin (although in my case, less Greek). So Latin-based roots pop out of texts at me all the time even in those sciences where my background is weak. In the case of Chinese, I had a very thorough grounding in written Japanese before I started reading Chinese more extensively. So I'm very conscious of both radicals and any other hints I can pick up in a character or word when I encounter something I don't know. Even without the Japanese, though, the more your stock of mastered characters grows, the more you should be able to guess the meaning accurately on the fly. 


You have, though, put your finger on a slight kink in the process. Pinyin and tones may still be a problem. Japanese can often be a reasonably consistent guide. But when in history a character moved from Chinese or Korean into spoken Japanese (as opposed to written classical Japanese) can introduce inconsistencies in the pronunciation.


Anyway, this has been my experience, but as the poets say, your mileage may vary.




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3 hours ago, Jan Finster said:

If I do not even know or recognize the characters in question, then guessing the meaning from context does not sound possible.


It's possible, but I must admit that I often guess wrong. If the unknown character crops up several times in one reading session, I look it up to make sure. 


Doesn't matter too much if I'm wrong. Making myself commit to a guess makes me read "actively" instead of just passively shuffling along. It makes me more likely to learn and remember the correct meaning after that day's reading is done. 

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On 5/29/2021 at 12:32 PM, Jan Finster said:

but I wonder if there is such a thing when reading Chinese (?)


Yes it is.  Pronunciation is a problem, but as your vocabulary increases, so does your ability to guess correctly and/or not need to guess because the word is made up of characters you already know.

On 5/29/2021 at 1:33 PM, mungouk said:

Which probably means @imron will arrive very soon and give us some really useful links to posts here on the forums from some years back...

Wouldn't want to leave you disappointed.  https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/34803-extensive-reading-and-vocabulary-range-video/

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Additionally, as you get to more complicated/obscure characters, the probability that they are pronounced the same as their main component, or the same sound with a different tone, increases significantly.


For example, add a radical 口 to 乞 (qi3) and you get 吃 (chi1); it's similar but there's no way you're going to guess that out of the blue.


However, add a radical 玉 to 旋 (xuan2) and you get 璇 (xuan2) exactly the same pronunciation.  In fact, if you put this character 旋 into Pleco, you can see all the characters of which it is a part are pronounced with the sound xuan, either in second or fourth tone.

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  • 3 months later...

Guessing the pronounciation of a character is possible.  You can do it based on parts, or just by squinting and confusing it for another similar looking but more common character.  The latter I do all the time when I'm quizzing myself and getting stuff wrong, so I know I can do that!


The problem is you just never know if you've correctly guessed, so you take the risk of mispronouncing the character for a while if you just accept it as so in your head...


You can also guess the meaning of 2 character "words" or 4 character "phrases".  You'll sometimes recognize all or most of the characters but you don't see how they go together.  E.g.  I just saw "逗乐" in a story, both characters I've know, but I've never seen together.


From story context I could tell it was some kind of sarcasm or ridicule, and I know 乐 could mean happy, so I roughly guessed it meant -- some kind of good natured laughing at someone. 


I did end up looking it up and apparently it means "to amuse oneself / to clown around / to provoke laughter," which is kind of close...  Though I'm still not sure if it applies more to laughing at yourself, or laughing at others; nor am I sure it has to be good natured. 


If I see the word again a few times, I'll figure out at some point.

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It's certainly possible, especially when you take hints from the radicals into account. You can usually take an educated guess on the pronunciation as well, although the danger there is that you slowly ingrain the wrong pronunciation in your mind. And sometimes you can tell exactly what it means, so you never feel the need to look up the pronunciation, such as with 歪 (wāi) and 吠 (fèi), the latter of which I only learned last month or so.

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