I don't know much Chinese but am looking up some basic words to see how it works. For example, the word 天地 translates in English to "world". However, the individual characters translate to this:

However, Google Translate also translates 天下 as "the world".

Another example of 2 becoming 1 concept is 种子, "seed":

  • 种: Species
  • 子: Child

That makes sense to translate it into one concept "seed" (unlike the "world" example). But I still don't see how you know when to group characters together into single concepts.

Finally, as one of my first sentences, I am looking at this: 第二道河名叫X, which Google Translate makes into "The second river is called X." The individual components are:

  • 第: First.
  • 二: Two.
  • 道: Road.
  • 河: River.
  • 名: name.
  • 叫: Call.
  • X: X.

First two road river name call x.

That doesn't make too much sense in direct translation.

The pinyin equivalent divided the Chinese characters into these chunks: 第二, 道, 河, 名叫, X, so those 2-character chunks translate to:

  • 第二: Second
  • 名叫: Name

Second road river Name X.

That makes a bit more sense.

What I would like to better understand is how you learn to group the characters into more complex concepts, and separate them from other concepts (as in 天地 world vs. 天 day and 地 ground). Since Chinese doesn't have spaces, it seems there must be some technique, or perhaps you have to learn the individual pairings/combinations of characters as single "words" or concepts in school at some point, provided with definitions like a dictionary.

  • 1
    If Google translate indeed converts "第" to "first", then it has severe problems. "第" is equivalent to English nth. 第二, naturally, is 2nd.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 12:45
  • 3
    Try to read modern Chinese text by Characters is not a good idea for beginners, it's not how human languages work. Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 14:41
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    Don't use a single English word to get the meaning of a single Chinese character. 天 means not only day, but also sky, heaven... You have to analyze the multiple meanings in order to understand the logic behind each word formed by two or more characters.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 17:00
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    Use different dictionaries, for instance: hanziyuan.net, zhongwen.com (they have a really useful printed dictionary, I've bought one, suggest you do the same), zdic.net, perapera.org, pleco.com, among others. Try to memorize different meanings of each character. In your example, 种 doesn't mean only species, but ALSO seed, kind, type. 子 is a "noun suffix", meaning that 种子 is more probably a concrete noun (and not a "species child"). Seed, thus.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 20:38
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    The best mindset is to ignore individual meanings of characters of words in learning them. Typically, after you learn a word and the individual character meanings, there is some relation, but to reverse engineer that is impossible.
    – H Huang
    Commented Apr 20, 2019 at 20:12

1 Answer 1


Modern Chinese prefer words rather than characters. The former way you translate a Chinese sentence is probably more suitable for ancient Chinese (known as 文言文).

It is not a big problem for a native Chinese speaker to naturally divide those characters into words, however for beginners, it can be hard. But guess what, dividing Chinese characters into chunks is a well-known research direction remaining unsolved in natural language processing and machine translation.

So the answer to your question is: The more combinations you know, the more accurately you can divide. You can hover your cursor on the words in Google Translate, and Google will tell you its (guessed) division scheme.

  • So wondering if you just need to learn the words (character sequences) one by one and memorize them.
    – Lance
    Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 15:25
  • 2
    LOL, Chineses learn thousands of characters and memorize words more than that; English speakers learn thousands of words and memorize phrases more than that.
    – HQSun
    Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 15:29
  • @LancePollard IMO Memorizing is a good start for all language learning. Commented Sep 24, 2018 at 6:04

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