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Pronouncing Similar Chinese Characters

by Chou Sing Chu Foundation

In one part of famed Taiwanese writer Qiong Yao’s My Fair Princess, the protagonist Xiaoyanzi tries to learn chengyu (Chinese four-character idioms), but because she misrecognises some words, makes a fool of herself instead:

Correct Pronunciation

一诺(nuò)千金

一鸣(míng)惊人

一丝不苟(gǒu)

一发千钧(jūn)

Erroneous Pronunciation in My Fair Princess

一苦(kǔ)千金

一鸟(niǎo)惊人

一丝不句(jù)

一发千钩(gōu)

“诺” and “苦”, “鸣” and “鸟”, “苟” and “句”, “钧” and “钩” are graphically similar pairs of words. Xiaoyanzi mispronounces them because she does not know many words, and blindly guesses the pronunciations based on their radicals. Despite these mistakes, however, there is a method to the madness.

Since the Han Dynasty, in composition and use, scholars have typically grouped Chinese characters into six types. Among them, the “xingsheng ” type accounts for more than 80% of Chinese characters. These are comprised of two parts, a semantic element and a phonetic element. Students can learn to distinguish between different characters by deducing the meanings of each based on the phonetic element. For example, the radical for “木”refers to woody plants or wooden items, and is used in words such as “椅” (chair) or “根” (roots). Pairing the same phonetic component with different semantic elements gives many words with similar pronunciations but dissimilar meanings, such as “站”, “粘”, and “战”(with the  phonetic component of “占”); or “刚”, “钢”, and “岗”(phonetic component of “冈”).

Because “xingsheng” characters form the majority of Chinese characters, one common strategy is to guess the pronunciation of a word based on familiar components of individual characters. In situations where there is no other option (such as encountering new words in an oral exam), Xiaoyanzi’s strategy is worth a shot, and can lead to some lucky successes. However, in some cases – such as “诣” (yì) and “旨”(zhǐ) – this method cannot be applied, and memorisation becomes the only way of learning the pronunciations.

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To avoid making a fool of ourselves like Xiaoyanzi, we can try to learn more about the meanings behind “xingsheng” characters. If necessary, we can even memorise the origins at the roots of these words. In September 2017, Chou Sing Chu Foundation released Practising Your Way to an A*  for upper primary school students, a supplementary book addressing their learning and practice needs. To facilitate understanding for parents and students, the book contains explanations in both Chinese and English as well as pronunciations. The first chapter lists 40 common radicals, and includes the corresponding explanations in both languages and useful examples, helping students to distinguish between different characters based on the basic meanings implied by radicals. In the subsequent pages, there are about 180 Chinese characters that are similar in structure or pronunciation. These are presented in 60 groups, enabling students to make direct comparisons and identify areas of difference, supported by examples, practice questions, and useful tips. In the final section, 10 tests modelled after the “Language Application” section of the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) are provided so that upper primary school students can familiarise themselves with the type of questions, giving their confidence a boost.

In short, learning Chinese is a matter of accumulation – a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.