All of the versions of 'learn' that people are explaining to me here in Taiwan involve studying (學到,學會) but I often find myself wanting to speak of learning in a way that has nothing to do with studying.

I learned to sing well in church.
I learned to walk at age two.
Where did she learn to manipulate people like that?

I also often want to make the distinction be studying and learning, for example:

You learn more studying songs than textbooks. 

Can anyone share some options for me?


  • 了解 and 得知 are a couple of possibilities. Learning in this regard is finding out or realizing rather than systematic quest for knowledge.
    – user4452
    Jul 12, 2016 at 5:24
  • @倪阔乐 I might be mistaken, but you are using learn in a different sense (i.e. to hear about something, find out something. E.g. when you say: "When I learned the news about the explosion..." But this is not the same sense as "learn to sing", "learn to walk", "learn to manipulate". You cannot express these with 了解 or 得知.
    – imrek
    Jul 12, 2016 at 7:11
  • Learning in these situations is definitely not "finding out", or "realizing". Nor is it remotely like "hearing about something". In the broadest sense "learned + V" (in the past) refers to the acquisition of a skill or ability (with no reference to intentional learning or not). I picked 3 examples that I meant to represent situations where the learner is not likely to have engaged in "intentional study" to illustrate that we can refer to learning without "study" being involved.
    – pixelearth
    Jul 12, 2016 at 12:51

2 Answers 2


In your examples it seems more like learn by practice, which in Chinese we usually say 學到 or 學會; on the other hand, learn by study is closer to 學習, in which 習 means systematic learning and training to acquire knowledge.

  • 習 also means "practising".
    – SOFe
    Jul 12, 2016 at 11:58
  • 1
    @PEMapModder 習 does have a meaning of practice, but in correspondence to the translation of study, it indicates more of a repeatedly organized and systematic behavior. Thanks for pointing it out! Jul 12, 2016 at 15:10
  • That's more accurate :) I was thinking about 習以為常
    – SOFe
    Jul 12, 2016 at 16:23

Really not involving studying?

Confucius suggested the Six Arts of education as the scope of what people should study. Therefore, singing can be considered as studying as well (although Music in the Six Arts actually referred to playing instruments).

學 is simply learning

Anyway, the term 學 is the direct translation of "learning". Studying is not necessarily involved. On the other hand, these words have more academic feeling:

Words specifically about learning

  • 修 literally means "repair", but has different meanings when paired with other characters (this word carries complicated meaning involving cultural and religious background, and even as a native Chinese speaker I am not confident to independently explain this word)
    • There is an ancient saying: "修身, 齊家, 治國, 平天下", which is translated as "complete/improve yourself (your knowledge), lead your family, rule the country, then conquer the world". Refer to this article for details
    • 修煉 is used by some religious practitioners or Taoism/Buddhism as a way of improving one's experience and to "accumulate" some kind of concept that is similar to XP in modern games :P (who knows, maybe modern games copied such concept). Note that 煉 has a 火, which means refining of metal, and Chinese people often copmare refining of metal to refining of one's spirit/life experience.
    • 修練 simply means practising. 練 means practising itself.
  • 習 (revise)
  • 讀 read
    • 書 means "book", and 讀書 literally means "read books", but also refers to the generic action of going to school in modern Chinese
  • 研究 (research, explore, investigate)

Translating the three examples in OP

I learned to sing well in church.

  • 我在教堂學唱歌學得唱得如此好。
    • I, in church, learnt singing songs, which made me sing so well.
    • This assumes the condition that you were just singing and you were talking about your performance, as you see from "such a good way".
    • This also seems odd in Chinese.
  • 我在教堂學會把歌唱好。
    • I, in church, learnt to sing songs well.
    • This seems to mean something different from "sing well".

I am unable to make a natural translation that does not change the meaning of your English sentence. Probably because of the culture of humility, in Chinese, we rarely say ourselves sing well in such a way -- children usually get scolded immediately whenever they say that they are good at something, especially without citation or comparison, or without a specific condition like this one.

I learned to walk at age two.


Here, "學會" refers to acquiring a skill.

Where did she learn to manipulate people like that?

她從哪裏學會那樣作弄 (I don't understand the term "manipulate" well enough) 別人?

I would like to refer to a story:

Mencius originally lived near a graveyard. He and his young friends always see people mourning when burying, so they imitated (學着 as in modern Chinese) the people. Mencius's mother is upset with this and moved near a market, but he and his new friends imitate (also 學) how hawkers yell and advertise instead. Eventually they moved near a school, where Mencius and his new friends imitate how students read aloud.

In this classical story (I realized that citation is seriously needed, but I am unable to find any reliable sources even from Wikipedia! This is probably a myth), 99% of the sources describe all the three actions as 學, but the former two are obviously not involved in studying, but the meaning of "learning" as in "imitation".

Studying in Chinese culture

After all, Chinese culture, especially the academic part, is totally about studying. The only difference is whether you are studying books (讀). There is a saying "萬般皆下品,惟有讀書高": "everything is bad/low-class/low-quality, and only studying books is high-class/good". This proves that Chinese people considering everything as learning, but studying books (especially, studying classical books like Analects) is a different level.

Therefore, in Chinese culture, the main difference between "studying" and "learning" is whether it is the publicly recognized as high-class studying, i.e. 讀書, because for more than 1000 years, Chinese people had to study classical books to enter the exam to become officials, which is considered the common aim for most scholars.

(Yes, keep in mind when looking for translation of words that cultural difference also matters)

  • "Therefore, in Chinese culture, "studying" and "learning" have no difference." In the languages I know well (English, Spanish, French) these are separate concepts. 'Study' implies intentional attention in order to 'learn'. 'Learning' itself does not imply any "intention" necessarily. It could be the product of social conditioning, family pressure, subconscious processes, or YES, the act of intentional study. This is why I asked my question. I've been failing to be able to talk about learning without referencing "study" in Mandarin. I could be bias, but I think this is a very useful distincion.
    – pixelearth
    Jul 12, 2016 at 7:50
  • Oh, I guess I misunderstood the question a bit, but I think most of the things mentioned in the text is still correct. I'll change that part a bit.
    – SOFe
    Jul 12, 2016 at 11:20
  • @pixelearth please accept answers.
    – SOFe
    Jul 13, 2016 at 8:27

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