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Using Context Clues to Read Chinese Characters with Multiple Pronunciations

Using Context Clues to Read Chinese Characters with Multiple Pronunciations


Jinna Wang

Say the following sentence out loud:

“I like to read. Last year, I read over thirty books.”

Did you notice that you said the two “read”s differently? The first “read” is pronounced like the word “reed,” as in the tall grass by the river. The second “read” is pronounced like the word “red,” as in the color.

These words are called heteronyms. They are words that are spelled the same way, but pronounced differently.  Which is kind of the reverse of homophones, in which two words have the same pronunciation, but different meanings. And that's all the jargon for today!  :)

If you're learning Mandarin Chinese characters, you've probably noticed that -- like English heteronyms -- certain characters have more than one pronunciation.  Furthermore, they take on new meanings as their pronunciation is changed. In Chinese, we call these characters 多音字 (duō yīn zì) - literally "more sound characters."  So how do you know which pronunciation to use when you are reading?  

The key to reading these characters that have multiple pronunciations is all about using context clues. In the example in English above, the phrase “last year” tells you that the second “read” is in the past tense, where it’s pronounced “red.”

In this post, we take a look at how to know the correct pronunciation for nine of the most popular Chinese "heteronyms."

1.   – (Hái or Huán)

The háipronunciation means “also” or “still.” It is mainly used for emphasis, as in我们没到 (wǒ men hái méi dào)" - "We still have not arrived. In this case, 还 (hái) is often stressed to sound extra whiny.  If you are ever stuck in a long car ride, you can use this sentence, which is kind of like a Chinese version of "Are we there yet?"

simpsons are we there yet

The huánpronunciation means "to return something borrowed."  "把钱还我! (bǎ qián huán wǒ)"means "Give back my money!"

return the money

2.   - (Hǎo or Hào)

好 (hǎo) is probably one of the first characters you learned in Chinese.  In its first pronunciation, hǎo, it means "good." Hǎoalso can mean "okay" - as in:

"Let's hang out after school."

" Hǎo."

In my mind, I always visualize (hǎo) as a big thumbs up.

like icon

However, hào in the 4th tone means "to be interested in." It is most commonly used in a compound word such as " (ài hào)" - which means "hobby".

hobby

3.   - (Xíng or Háng)

Xíng means "to go," "to walk," or "to travel." Popularly, it is also used as a casual form of "okay," as in:

"Hey, can I use your basketball?"

" (xíng)!" - "Okay/Go ahead!"

travel

The pronunciation háng on the other hand, is used when referring to a profession: " (háng yè)," or refering to rows/lines "行列 (háng liè)," or the bank - "银行 (yín háng)".

profession

This one is a bit tricky, so don't worry too much if you can't differentiate when to use each pronunciation right away.

4.  - (Le or Liǎo)

Ah, 了 (le), our favorite past tense Chinese particle and the headache of many beginner Chinese learners!  Whenit  is used without tone after a verb, 了 (le) tells the action is over and puts the action in the past tense.

Most students have encountered the neutral tone, but have you met its twin, 了 (liǎo)?

When is preceded by 不 (bù) it is almost always pronounced "liǎo." When 了 (bù liǎo)is placed after a verb, it tells us it is impossible to do the verb. For example:

"Mom, I can't eat all of this!"

“妈妈我吃不了(mā mā, wǒ chī bù liǎo)!

To make an easy rule of thumb, verb += past tense:  pronounced "le".

Verb + = cannot do the verb: 了 pronounced "liǎo".

5.   - ( or Yuè)

The "lè" pronunciation is all things happiness-related.  It could be interpreted as joy, laughter, amusement, or fun. The brand Coca-cola's Chinese brand name is "可口可 (kě kǒu kě lè)" - which translates literally to "delicious and fun."  That's good marketing!

cocacola

The second pronunciation "yuè" is when  refers to music. Example include music - "音乐 (yīn yuè)," or instrument - "乐器 (yuè qì)."

6.  -  (Cháng or Zhǎng)

long hair

The first pronunciation, "cháng" is most commonly used as an adjective, meaning "long," or as a noun, meaning "length."

When is used as a verb, meaning "to grow," it is then pronounced zhǎng.

Check out the following funny-looking sentence that makes use of multiple heteronyms:

"头发长长了 (tóu fǎ zhǎng cháng le)."

This means, "The hair grew long."

7.  便 - (Biàn or Pián)

便 is most commonly used as biàn, meaning "convenience," as in the word "方便 (fāng biàn)," or

"casual," as in the word "随便 (suí biàn)."

But, when it is used in the word "便宜 (pián yi)", meaning "inexpensive," it is pronounced pián.

8.  - (Zhōng or Zhòng)

(zhōng) means "middle", or any variation of middle, such as "during," "amidst," "medium," or "center."

Think about words such as "中国 (zhōng guó)" - China, or literally, "the middle kingdom."

china map

But, in rare cases, is pronounced zhòng which roughly means "to hit the target." A popular example is "中奖 (zhòng jiǎng)", which means to "win," or "hit the jackpot."

hit the jackpot

9.  - (Fēn or Fèn)

分 (fēn) as a verb means "to divide." As a noun, fēn can mean " (fēn zhōng)" - minute," or "分数 (fēn shù)" - points.

clock

When it is pronounced as fèn, can mean "pieces," or "identity" when used in "身分 (shēn fèn)". The Chinese word for ID card is "身分(shēn fèn zhèng)". However, the character  is often used to replace (fèn) to avoid the confusion of multiple pronunciations.

Learning to read Chinese characters will unlock a lot of the mystery of spoken Chinese, connecting the sounds to a written symbol.  But might be easy to get discouraged when reading through all the different ways to pronounce these 多音字 (duō yīn zì). You might think: "How will I ever learn all of these?"  But you can trust that you will pick up on these conventions of the Chinese language as part of the learning process. Through enough listening, reading, absorbing and immersive learning, you will internalize these seemingly random rules.  

Do you have any questions about these Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations? Let us know in the comments below!

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JINNA WANG is a freelance writer and translator living in New York. She grew up in the snowy city of Harbin, and now spends many weekends recreating the northeast Chinese cuisine of her childhood. You can usually find her traveling, eating, and writing about both.

Posted on: May 16th, 2017
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