How to distinguish between Chinese characters and words

How to distinguish between characters and words when reading Chinese?

If you are a beginning Chinese learner sometimes you have trouble differentiating between Chinese characters and Chinese words. The problem is that in Chinese writing there are no spaces in between words like English. This means that any two characters next to each other could potentially be a word. In fact, sometimes a word is 3 characters, 4 characters or more!

Quick Briefing: Chinese Characters

Chinese characters are a building block of Chinese words. A single Chinese character can be a word or multiple characters can be combined into one word! An example would be you could call your mom “吗/mā” and this would be a single word. However, you can put two of these characters together to create ”妈妈/Māmā.” This is also a single word. Some characters are almost always single words while others often need at least one other characters to make a word.

Which Chinese characters belong to which word?

Speaking from experience, when trying to read Chinese early on, I was also frustrated at knowing which characters paired together to make a word! One time I tried to read Harry Potter and spent so much time looking up each character only to realize the characters 阿不思邓布利多 sounded out to be “Ābùsī Dèngbùlìduō.” Albus Dumbledore! Aiya! It was just a long wizard name!

However, this is not the usual case. When learning the first few hundred characters, you will notice which words are usually put together — 漂 if often next to 亮 to make 漂亮 or ‘beautiful. So as you learn more vocabulary, this will become clearer.

Next, as you learn more grammar and sentence structure, you will soon be able to see the markers in a sentence. There are several grammar structures that start and close part of the sentence. For example, the phrase “Everything… except for…” (除了。。。以外。。。) will help you notice where ideas stop and start.

One last thing you will improve on is contractions. Native Chinese speakers (when writing especially!) will abbreviate words to make them smaller and more concise. Ie. When writing “tomorrow morning” they won’t use the full four words version 明天早上 but instead condense it down to simply 明早 to save time and space.

So, my advice is to learn more words, learn more grammar, and keep reading more! Good luck learning Chinese! Take a free Chinese lesson with a real teacher to make sure your skills are up to snuff!

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