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Practising Word Formation and Combinations with Idioms!

by Chou Sing Chu Foundation


Chou Sing Chu Foundation Board Member Dr Ho Soo Guang is a veteran Chinese educator who has previously served in Singapore’s Ministry of Education. In an op-ed piece published in Lianhe Zaobao on 8 January 2018, titled “Student Survey on Commonly Used Chinese Words”, he offered his suggestions on the building up of the Chinese vocabulary of students, believing that repetition is the basis of such learning, and that their vocabulary can be greatly improved through frequent word formation and word combinations.

In Singapore, where the proficiency in Chinese seems to be declining by the day, the time children spend on learning the language is insufficient. Coupled with the limited number of new words found in Chinese textbooks (a total of about 1,800 words from Primary 1 to 6), this means that students are not able to learn Chinese effectively through repetition in learning with their textbooks.

Since the number of new words students learn is limited, it is a challenge to ensure that they master the Chinese language with their limited vocabulary. Therefore, students must consciously combine different words and put them to use in order to expand their vocabulary further. In fact, the usage of the words can be simple, and mastering it can enable the students to learn much more effectively. For example, while “万家” and “灯火” have individual meanings (“numerous homes or houses” and “lights” respectively), they can be combined into a single evocative idiom (“万家灯火”) that describes a night view dotted with the lights from the countless houses.

Understanding Chinese Idioms without Rote Memorisation

Another way of learning word formation and combinations is to learn Chinese idioms. Idioms that are commonly used are generally not as difficult, and students can build a foundation for their learning through the use of idioms to enrich their use of Chinese. However, even everyday conversations will become confusing without a sound understanding of the meaning of these idioms. For instance:

  • The expression “八九不离十” may literally means that the numbers eight and nine are not far from ten, but it is used to denote the approximate nature of something, such as in an act of guessing.
  • Why is it that when a bad deed or plot has been discovered, we use “东窗事发”, which refers to an eastern window (“东窗”)? The idiom is a reference to the “East Window Plot”, a story of how Qin Hui and his wife conspired to frame Yue Fei while sitting by the eastern window.
  • Why are the students of teachers referred to with the term “桃李”, meaning “peaches and plums”? This is from the Chinese saying “百年树人”, which compares the nurturing of people by teachers to the cultivating of trees, and is a metaphor for its outcome.
  • Why are the meanings of “守望相助” and “唇齿相依” so similar? Do they have anything to do with “唇亡齿寒”? (Connecting one idiom to another in the learning process, students can learn about synonyms and antonyms in one go.)

Many students find learning Chinese idioms challenging, but this is mainly because they do not know the stories behind the formation of these idioms, which in turn makes it hard to understand their meaning.

In just a few words, Chinese idioms pass down the interesting stories that they are derived from through the generations. Without understanding these stories, primary school students have to learn nearly 200 idioms in their syllabus by rote memorisation. As a result, they may struggle to grasp the full meaning of each idiom, and are likely to make mistakes in their usage. Learning Chinese idioms requires patience. After all, haste makes waste. Instead, by taking it a step at a time, coupled with the right method, success will come steadily.

The pursuit of knowledge is never-ending. Start practising word formation and combinations today!