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It seems as if it would literally mean both (regardless of what is assumed). If so, how would one normally distinguish, in Chinese, both English sentences when translated?

3 Answers 3

3

The problem with 会 is it can mean either "would" or "know" (e.g. a skill) depending on the context, so you need to add more context to disambiguate.

  • "我[沒學過外語,]只说汉语" clearly mean "I [have not studied foreign languages,] can only speak Chinese"

  • "我[在我教的外国人汉语課上]只说汉语" clearly mean "I would only speak Chinese [in the Chinese class for foreigners I teach]"

The solution is more context

Without enough context, the first reaction to "我只会说汉语" for most Chinese would be "I can only speak Chinese" because it is a more likely scenario than "I will only speak Chinese".

A Chinese refuses to speak a foreign language (it has to be under a very specific situation) is less likely than a Chinese doesn't know how to speak a foreign language (it is a very likely possibility)

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  • Could 我只会说汉语 mean "I would only speak Chinese"? Shouldn't that meaning have to be expressed as 我会只说汉语? I agree that 我会说汉语could be both "I can speak chinese" and "I will speak chinese" (depending on the stress on 会 or not), but with the extra word 只, it would be different -- maybe due to some grammatical reasons? I am far from a grammar expert; from the standpoint of a native speaker 我只会说汉语 cannot mean "I would only speak Chinese". Any other native speakers?
    – ALife
    Mar 18 at 11:20
  • @ALife "我[在我教的外国人汉语課上]只会说汉语" is a valid example of "只会" means "would only". A Chinese teacher who teaches foreigners can't speak a foreign language is highly unlikely
    – Tang Ho
    Mar 18 at 11:23
  • Personally I would not interpret the sentence that way. Thinking about the sentence multiple times again with different possible intonation/stress and with the phrase in the brackets, I can somehow feel the intended meaning, but such way of expression seems still not quite natural to me. Put it another way, I myself would definitely say "...会只..." as opposed to "只会" for the meaning "would", and feel that my peers (other native speakers) would probably do the same. Maybe it's a difference between native speakers from HK and from mainland China?
    – ALife
    Mar 18 at 11:29
  • 只会说汉语 and 只会越说越远 have no structural difference
    – Tang Ho
    Mar 18 at 11:34
  • Specifically, in my way of interpretation, the intonation of the sentence that can be interpreted as "would" needs to be de-emphasizing "会" (as in many other occasions of 会meaning "would"), and with such intonation, the sentence sounds like "我在我教的外国人汉语課上只..说汉语", which somehow implies that the de-emphasized 会is unimportant and optional.
    – ALife
    Mar 18 at 11:35
1

只 has the meaning of "just", "merely", "nothing but", "only".

会 has the meaning of "be possible", "be able to", or "can".

Combined, 只会 means "just/merely/nothing but/only be possible/be able to/can". The simplest is "only can".

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It only means the former, i.e., "I can only speak Mandarin". A similar, but different sentence, 我会只说汉语, means the latter, i.e., "I will only speak Mandarin".


Edit: after the discussion with @TangHo below his answer with a few examples, it seems that in different contexts, 会,esp., when combined with 只, could mean multiple things with subtle differences, and may be worth additional discussion (in a separate post)? However, I still believe that 我只会说汉语 in general only means "I can only speak Mandarin" and for the intended meaning "I would only speak Mandarin", we have to say 我会只说汉语。Even for @TangHo's example, 我在我教的外国人汉语課上只会说汉语, although the context makes the interpretation "I can speak only chinese in the ... class" unreasonable and I can infer that the speaker wanted to say "I would (choose to) only speak Chinese in ...", I would consider such expression unnatural and say 我在我教的外国人汉语課上会只说汉语 instead.

There could be some grammatical reasons behind my understanding, but I cannot explain well. Region/dialect differences could also play a role. Maybe some linguists and other native speakers can help clarify.

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  • 1
    会只 cannot replace 只会 in 协助侵略者只会给自身带来灾难 . 协助侵略者会只给自身带来灾难 sounds really unnatural. Also, change 由现在起十天内我会只吃素 to 由现在起十天内我只会吃素 doesn't change the meaning of the sentence but make it sound more natural
    – Tang Ho
    Mar 19 at 16:47
  • I agree with your comments on the first example. However, the meaning of 会is slightly different there: 给自身带来灾难 is the only consequence of 协助侵略者. While in 我在我教的外国人汉语課上只会/会只说汉语, intended meaning is that 我 will choose to only speak Chinese. Again, it could be related to the overall grammar structure and the roles of 只 and 会,but I cannot tell the exact reason -- it's just my intuition as a native speaker.
    – ALife
    Mar 19 at 23:06
  • As for your second example, I disagree with your comments: I feel that 由现在起十天内我会只吃素 is natural, but 由现在起十天内我只会吃素 is not natural (i.e., opposite to your feeling), for the same reason/feeling/intuition as the other example 我在我教的外国人汉语課上会只说汉语 is natural, while 我在我教的外国人汉语課上只会说汉语is not natural.
    – ALife
    Mar 19 at 23:11
  • It reminds me of the 質素 vs. 素质 argument. In Mainland China, people use 素质 for "quality" But in Taiwan and Hong Kong, 質素 is the natural one and 素质 is unnatural. Also, the common verb 打擊 can become 擊打 in classical style speech, the meaning is the same, only the feel is different
    – Tang Ho
    Mar 19 at 23:19
  • Could be. Btw, I have never seen mainland Chinese saying 質素, which confirms your claim. However, for me and probably for many/most other mainland Chinese, 素质 does not exactly mean "quality". We use 质地,质量,性质for quality, while 素质 typically means 素养 in the sense of well-educated/cultured, e.g., 他这人素质差 (he is not well cultured/educated; his manner is poor), 注意素质 (Watch your manner/Be decent). When used with a specific discipline, e.g., 他有游泳运动员的素质(he has the disposition of becoming a swimming athlete -- maybe a little similar to quality in this sense).
    – ALife
    Mar 19 at 23:34

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