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Recently I left the following post on social media:

中国人:你的中文是在哪里学的?

我:在北京语言大学学的。

Just to clarify, I wrote both those sentences to express a regular conversation that I have with Chinese people. There is no more context. If it helps then let's say that the Chinese person heard me speak Chinese for the first time and I have pretty good Chinese.

A Chinese friend then commented:

他问的是 how 你回答的是 where.

Could it be that 在哪里 can not be used to mean 在什么地方 and can only be used to express 怎么?

If you saw the question 你的中文是在哪里学的? would you interpret that as 你的中文是在哪个地方学的? or as 你的中文是怎么学的? or both, depending on context?

My main issue is this: I created the scenario so there is no more context to be given. One person asks 你的中文是在哪里学的 and the response is 在北京学的。If the question can be interpreted both ways i.e. where/how then the commenter was not justified in saying that the question meant ''how''. She could have pointed out that that question doesn't always mean literally ''where'' but she couldn't say that it doesn't mean ''literal where''.

If the question 你的中文是在哪里学的 does mean ''literal where'' in some contexts then that answers my question. She was not justified in making that comment. The answer was not ''incorrect'' as it is correct in some contexts and we do not know the context.

The following images were added later after a conversation I had with a new Chinese friend where they actually asked me this exact question and I questioned them on it.

Also, I presented this to the Chinese person who originally stated that 你的中文是在哪里学的 is a ''how'' question and they agreed that there was actually nothing wrong with my original dialogue after all.

I conclude that 你的中文是在哪里学的 means ''where'' in general, but depending on the context it can mean ''how''.

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    Side note: 北京语言大学 is not the same as 北京大学语言系. Similarly, 少林武術學校 might not have anything to do with 少林寺 – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 4:48
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中国人:你的中文是在哪里学的?

我:在北京语言大学学的。

Without other context, this dialogue indicates a normal conversation sequence. '在哪里' just means 'where'.

In some context, 你的中文是在哪里学的? could be used as a rhetorical question. The underlying meaning is 你的中文是在哪里学的? (怎么这么差!) In English, it could be something like from where have you learned such awful Chinese? In this case, they may not want you to answer it literally. And I guess you don't want to answer it at all.

Out of that specific context, 你的中文是在哪里学的? is just a normal sentence and your answer is a proper one.

To me, 在哪里(where) doesn't mean 怎么(how) in any case. And your Chinese friend might say it out of certain context, in which you should use 怎么 other than 在哪里,otherwise he is plain wrong.

Edit:

Context is the key here. 你的中文是在哪里学的?could also imply someone's Chinese is very good and they want to know where they have learnt it. But standing alone, we can't make any assumption about the context. We should take it literally instead, unless OP can provide more context for analysis.

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    I agree 在哪里(where) doesn't mean 怎么(how), but 哪里 beside referring to 'location', can refer to 'source' as well. e.g. 我的中文是在北京學的;我的中文是在電視上學的 – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 2:01
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    @TangHo well, I don't see your point. OP didn't ask about 'location' or 'source' stuff, but 'how' and 'where'. Have I misunderstood anything? – dan Jul 11 at 2:12
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    in "我的中文是在電視上學的" 電視上 is a 'source', learning from watching programs on T.V. is a method. And a method is 'how you do something – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 2:26
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    @TangHo Well, op's question 你的中文是在哪里学的? and the answer is 在北京语言大学学的 or you can reply 在电视上学的. I don't see any problems in the dialogue. The Chinese person apparently indicates his response 在北京语言大学学的 improper, which I don't really agree. – dan Jul 11 at 3:34
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    Yes, the Chinese person wanted to ask 'how', but his question didn't make it clear. It could be answered the way the OP answered, – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 4:34
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I think the trick here is that 学 doesn't necessarily stand for 学习 (study), it stands for 学会 (learn).

Thus they are asking: "Where did you learn Mandarin?".

Unlike "studying", "learning" a language can be a passive process, and can come from a variety of sources. Maybe you speak it at home with your parents, picked it up while working in China, etc. Having studied it is one of the options.

So 在哪里 assumes a broader, figurative meaning in this case. You can also see this as: "How come you can speak Mandarin?"

If you see it this way, your original answer isn't very spot-on in English either.

Since you are not required to point out a specific place, valid answers might be:

我父母是中国人, 我男/女朋友是中国人, 我在大学念中文, 我在中国工作了5年了, 我每个周末跟我的中国朋友一起去打台球, etc.


To reduce ambiguity and ask in what place someone studied Chinese, you can say:

你的中文是在什么地方学的?

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    @Kantura it tends to mean "how"/"how come". I edited my answer with a variant – blackgreen Jul 10 at 21:35
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    But how about 你的手机是在哪里买的?Does this mean where or how did you buy it ? – Kantura Jul 10 at 21:43
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    @Kantura the difference is the verb. How would you reply in English to "Where did you learn Mandarin"? "At Beijing university" is not a very consequential answer. – blackgreen Jul 10 at 21:45
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    Actually when people ask me where I learned Mandarin I do tell them Beijing university and they are satisfied with that answer. – Kantura Jul 10 at 21:58
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    @Kantura different people might interpret language subtleties differently. I'm not saying that I'm right and others are wrong. Though I can give you an unsolicited piece of advice: don't assume that absence of a reaction means approval. Some people just "let go" ;) – blackgreen Jul 10 at 22:01
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Edit:

中国人:你的中文是[在哪里]学的? indicates the question is asking 'where'

中国人:你的中文是[怎么]学的? indicates the question is asking 'how'

中国人:你的中文是[从哪里]学的? indicates the question is asking 'from what source' And sources are not locations -- For example: from books, from classes, from T.V.

'From what source' = 'with what methods' --> 'how' you learn

When the Chinese person asked '在哪里学的' but then claimed he was asking "how" he should have said 从哪里 instead of 在哪里

'在哪里' refers to 'what location' e.g. Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai.

'从哪里' refers to 'source' e.g. books, classes, the internet.

Does 「你的中文是在哪里学的?」mean “How did you study Chinese?” or “Where did you study Chinese?”

It means “Where did you study Chinese?"

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  • So does 你的中文是在哪里学的?= 你的中文是怎么学的? – Kantura Jul 10 at 21:53
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    I was editing when you made your comment. I added the term 哪里 may refer to as 'from what location' or 'from what source' E.g. books, classes, the internet. – Tang Ho Jul 10 at 21:58
  • But my question is can 你的中文是在哪里学的 mean 你的中文是在什么地方学的 ?or does it always mean 你的中文是怎么学的 ? – Kantura Jul 10 at 22:01
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    See my edition: 哪里' mainly refer to 'what location, but it can refer to source – Tang Ho Jul 10 at 22:08
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    I change my mind, I now agree 在哪里 means "where" it is not the same as 从哪里 and certainly not the same as 怎么 – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 13:52
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I agree with @dan's answer. Just like that "China always win" joke, the interpretation of this "question" depends heavily on the context.

Specifically, this rhetorical expression is mostly used colloquially where additional context can be provided via facial expressions, stresses and the general tone of the sentence.

I think there might have also been a tone particle like 啊 or 呀 you missed which would have made it clear it was rhetorical/exclamational. I.e. "今天天怎么这么冷?" could be a question or an exclamation, but "今天天怎么这么冷!" is undoubtedly rhetorical.


他问的是 how 你回答的是 where.

This explanation is poorly done. I think what your friend was trying to say was "他问的是 how [come your English is so good] 你回答的是 where".

This involves another phenomenon where Chinese people read between the lines and respond to the subtext.

Also, as the listener may not be 100% sure if the expression is being used in a commendatory or derogatory sense, this kind of response strategically indicates which way the listener understood it as, which gives the asker a chance to clarify.

For example, this is a perfectly normal Chinese conversation:

A: 你这鸭脖是在哪里买的啊! (Read "This duck neck tastes so good!")
B: 楼底下超市*,好吃我明天再买

* In this case, answering the question literally is okay as the asker may actually be interested in that information.

And a derogatory version:

A: 你这车是哪里学的?! (Read "Your driving sucks!")
B: 我下次会注意

In this case, it is unlikely that the person is interested in the name of your driving school.

Your friend skipped a step and didn't explain this thinking process.

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When a Chinese person says 你的中文是在哪里学的? usually means you speak Chinese very well and just make him wonder why you learn so well! He may not care where you study from

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    Dan said : "The underlying meaning is 你的中文是在哪里学的? (怎么这么差!)" seems like it all depend on context. – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 9:29
  • @Tang Ho Infact Chinese is so hard no foreigner could speak as well as us. If my Chinese is 90 score, any foreigner has 20 score chinese people would say "你的中文太好了! " so I don't agree with Dan's oponion. – Siwei Shen 申思维 Jul 11 at 11:36
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    Haha, I said it depends on the context. You can use it on someone who is expected to be good at Chinese – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 13:30
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    Context is a key here. I agree that in some context that it could imply the foreigner speak Chinese well, but we can't assume that's the only context the sentence is being used. There could be some context you can make that sentence sarcastical. So, with the dialogue standing alone, we can't say which situation it is. We should take it literally in this case, unless OP can provide more context for analysis. @Siwei Shen 申思维 – dan Jul 11 at 13:36
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When a Chinese person ask you: 你的中文是在哪里学的? He actually want to know: which university, province or city you learned Chinese at?

And another implied meaning is that: Your Chinese is very good, so he is very curious and ask you this question.

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  • So is it ok to say 在北语学的 ? – Kantura Jul 12 at 2:45
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The question 你的中文是在哪里学的 is not quite correct.

I think the correct Question should be: 在外国人里,你的英语真好,是怎么学的?

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    Saying 'not quite clear' may be better than saying 'not quite correct. ' The questioner might want to know in what location you learned Chinese or he might want to know from what sources you learned English. – Tang Ho Jul 11 at 1:54
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    I don't agree with that at all. So the next time a Chinese person asks me 你的中文是在哪里学的 I should reply: Sorry but your question is wrong, the correct question you should be asking is 在外国人里,你的中文真好,是怎么学的. That's crazy :) Chinese people never ask that second question and often ask the first. There is nothing wrong with the question. It is the interpretations of the question that are being discussed here. – Kantura Jul 11 at 14:11
  • OK, no offensive. Sure you can disagree with me. You are not Chinese, I am. And there's a very interesting thing : We Chinese even don't know where the foreigners could study Chinese if you are not in Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou/Shenzhen. And another fact: people will not ask a question very acquisitely/pricesly unless he is a software manager like I am. So next time when you are asked "你的中文是在哪里学的?" , you can try to ask him: "谢谢, 你是想知道我在哪里学的,还是知道我怎么学的?" – Siwei Shen 申思维 Jul 12 at 1:25
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    That's getting way too personal. Also, where's the answer to the question Does 「你的中文是在哪里学的?」 mean “How did you study Chinese?” or “Where did you study Chinese?” – Becky 李蓓 Jul 13 at 0:48
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Strictly speaking, what he asked is where.

But in daily oral communication, as a native Chinese speaker, I can tell you both where and how is ok to answer.

I mean

If one person asks you 你的中文是在哪里学的?(where) and you answer "My friends taught me"(how)

Or

If one person asks you 你的中文是怎么学的?(how) and you answer "In 北京语言大学"(where)

Every Chinese can understand you and even sometimes we ask like this.

Because broadly speaking, this sentence is to ask you in what ways, by what means, through what, where, how you learnt Chinese. It's not in a narrow sense where and how. You should figure out what he wanted to express instead of literal meaning.

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