More often than not, looking up a simple word in a dictionary brings up several translations. It's pretty obvious that a lot of people have problems with this since a lot of questions here are "what is the difference between X and Y". For example, looking up something like "speak" or "talk" brings up a lot of seemingly equivalent versions:

  • 说话
  • 讲话
  • 谈论
  • 议论
  • 谈谈
  • 聊聊
  • 讲讲

However, it is obvious from this question that there are subtle differences. Is there a way to infer these differences from a standard dictionary? Or, are there any additional tools and resources that would help with something like this? I understand that we can "just ask someone", but it's not always possible or convenient, so what's the best way to make an "educated guess"?

  • As an aside, the accepted answer to the question linked has gotten the explanation of「言」wrong.「言」is a dot「丶」on top of tongue「舌」, and seal scripts and earlier will all write it this way. The current form of「言」first appeared in Clerical script.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 14:24
  • do most dictionaries not give a number of translations with many examples showing differences of semantics and collocation,e.g consider bkrs
    – user6065
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 21:10

2 Answers 2


One way I use to "resolve" those ambiguities in a pinch is by using two dictionaries - one English to Chinese and another Chinese to English.

Essentially, when looking for a Chinese word corresponding to an idea you want to express, look it up in E-Ch dictionary first, then take all the results that you think you could use, and look them up again in the Chinese to English dictionary. Usually the subtle (or not so subtle) differences in meaning become evident in Ch-E translations. This works even better if you use dictionaries that have example sentences, ideally in both languages.

This 2-dictionary trick works for any pair of languages, best if one of them is your native or near native, so try to find dictionaries in your native one. Obviously it works the better the closer the two languages are, but Chinese is quite far, linguistically, from anything spoken outside Asia.

If you want to spend more time on this little research - look the Chinese word up in various online or offline corpora of sentences. Look up or Google the combination of this word and the one you're sure about - subject/predicate, "adjective"/noun and so on and see how many results you get - the more the # the more likely you got it right.

In the end, "usage" is all about context. These methods are quick (compared to asking on forums or reading a few books in Chinese ;) ) and dirty ones for establishing what word fits the context you want to use it in.

  • 1
    In fact, using two dictionaries, one each way, is a good idea for learning any language. A more obscure method one could use, but often forget, at a high level of familiarity with the language, is to delve into a Chinese-Chinese dictionary, look up common uses and examples and discern each of their nuances.
    – Frenzy Li
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 3:16
  • 1
    Good idea about trying to use multiple dictionaries! I already use google to search for phrases in quotes, but for some reason I never tried using a second dictionary, especially one which provides example sentences! @FrenzyLi I hope I'll be good enough to use Ch-Ch dictionary some day :) Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 12:02
  • 1
    @drHannibalLecter the key is using dictionaries in both directions, not simply multiple dictionaries "to Chinese". Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 3:41

The fastest way to resolve such ambiguities is to shed thinking in English. Right now, you're looking up an English word and finding a whole bunch of synonyms used in different contexts for it in another language, which is unavoidable for any language.

In any case, those listed aren't fully interchangeable. Here's how I would translate those terms:

  • 談, chat
  • 論, discussion/debate/reason, more intellectual/academic
  • 說, originally to explain (e.g. 說明), extended to mean say/speak
  • 講, speak, colloquially extended to mean explain
  • 說話, to say/speak, almost entirely interchangeable with 講話
  • 講話, to say/speak, almost entirely interchangeable with 說話
  • 談論, to have a discussion, slight emphasis on the act of having discussion
  • 議論, to have a discussion, emphasis on intellectual commentary or debate
  • 談談、聊聊、講講 - verb reduplication, only used in colloquial language. Has an effect of lightening up the mood or bring a feeling of casual-ness to the conversation. Verb reduplication expresses the meaning "a little bit".
    • 談談、聊聊 mean practically the same thing ("have a little chat").
    • 講講 is more one sided, e.g. 你跟我講講這是什麽意思? (could you tell me what this means?)
  • Well..shedding thinking in English sounds like a good idea, but I think you need to reach a certain level for that. The struggle before that is quite real. Also, English itself is my second language, so that's not helping anything :) Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 23:48
  • 2
    @drHannibalLecter English isn't my first language either and I'm a beginner in Chinese, but shedding thinking in English/[any other language] is easier than it sounds (I tried it for other languages already): I started off learning basic vocab with images, then kept increasing the complexity by looking at sentences I understood up to one word (e.g. once I understand "I" and "car", I can infer one meaning of 开 from 我开车; a translation of the sentence – not the word! – and some grammar may be necessary). Nice side effect: I actually know at least one application of each word I learned so far.
    – Peter
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 6:47

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