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I am making a fantasy language and trying to learn how other languages outside of English organize their grammars. I am looking at Mandarin Chinese Result Complements, and they are all complex statements when converted into English:

  • 大: to make something big/wide
  • 成: to change or turn something into something else
  • 会: to know how to (do something)

It appears that Chinese doesn't have "prepositions" like "into" or even "down" as well:

  • 我走下楼梯: I walked down the stairs. (where 下 means like "to go down", not just "down"). I [to walk] [to go down] [stairs] (subject verb verb object it seems)

So I'm wondering, how do you teach a native Chinese person the meaning of the words, or how do you define them in a dictionary? Given that, their definition in English involves so many prepositions and more "meta" words. Teaching an English speaker would make sense, you just describe the Chinese word using these prepositions / meta words. But if you are a native Chinese speaker, how do you define "to know how to x" without the 4 words "to, know, how, to"? I am having a hard time making the imaginative leap to seeing how you can learn words in Chinese which takes English a few words to describe.

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    Your confusion has nothing to do with Chinese, but a conceptual misunderstanding of how dictionary entries work. Here's the Wiktionary entry on the English word "big". [big: Of great size, large]. An English word was just defined using 4 other English words. Now recursively check up each of those words. How many English words after the recursive expansion are needed to define the English word "big"?
    – dROOOze
    Jul 23, 2023 at 10:50
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    我走下楼梯:, where 下 means like "to go down", not just "down". Then, what does "" mean?
    – r13
    Jul 23, 2023 at 16:05
  • @r13 He got confused with "走下楼梯" and "下楼梯", where in second case "下" means "to go down".
    – 王博龙
    Jul 23, 2023 at 19:51
  • I do not understand your confusion. For your specific question about "to know how to", how do you define "to know how to" without using these four words in English? Also that is not even a phrase in Chinese.
    – 王博龙
    Jul 23, 2023 at 19:55

3 Answers 3

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While the description of the questions is rather confusing, but by reading the title "How do you describe Chinese words when you are learning Chinese?", and that the OP directly addresses "native speakers" in the question, the OP seems to be questioning how it works for native speakers to learn words in their native languages.

It is the similar way: People start learning their native languages by mimicking their parents or guardians. Early vocabulary comes from mapping language words to basic objects and activities, which do not need to be defined by the language itself. When people learn to use dictionaries, they must have already acquired a reasonable sized vocabulary that contains the basic words of their native language. Based on such vocabulary, they can learn more words and add to the vocabulary using dictionaries and reading materials.

I cannot tell why the OP thinks that just because of the different combinations of words types (e.g., in the OP's example, missing certain prepositions) could such way of defining things get impacted in a specific language.

For example, here is the Wiktionary page of "learn" (学习) in Chinese: https://zh.wiktionary.org/zh-hans/%E5%AD%B8%E7%BF%92. It is defined as such:

动词
學習

获得知识或技能;研习,钻研 
刻苦學習 / 刻苦学习  ―  kèkǔ xuéxí  ― 
學習知識 / 学习知识  ―  xuéxí zhīshí  ― 
學習環境 / 学习环境  ―  xuéxí huánjìng  ― 
終生學習 / 终生学习  ―  zhōngshēng xuéxí  ― 
項目式學習 / 项目式学习  ―  xiàngmùshì xuéxí  ― 
快樂學習 / 快乐学习  ―  kuàilè xuéxí  ― 
我要向你學習。 / 我要向你学习。  ―  Wǒ yào xiàng nǐ xuéxí.  ― 
我想多學習些這個主題。 [现代标准汉语,繁体]
我想多学习些这个主题。 [现代标准汉语,简体]
Wǒ xiǎng duō xuéxí xiē zhège zhǔtí. [汉语拼音]
效法、模仿某人的行为
學習雷鋒好榜樣。 / 学习雷锋好榜样。  ―  Xuéxí Léi Fēng hǎo bǎngyàng.  ― 

Clearly, it uses other words to define this verb. Like @dROOOze commented, you cannot start with nothing and expect a recursive dictionary lookup to solve all your learning needs.

Btw, to learn how to = 学习如何.


"我走下楼梯", "下" means down.

  • 我: I
  • 走: walk
  • 下: down
  • 楼梯: stairs

In contrast, "我下楼梯", "下" means "to go down".

  • 我: I
  • 下: go down
  • 楼梯: stairs

This is just a case where "下" has two meanings. There might be more words of this kind but that should not be used to establish any presumptions that all words are like this.

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Nuances are often lost in translation, and one risks falling in traps of misunderstanding when trying to learn about the grammar of another language in one's mother tongue, especially when the source being turned to is not that native.

they are all complex statements when converted into English:

  • 大: to make something big/wide
  • 成: to change or turn something into something else
  • 会: to know how to (do something)

Not exactly. If I were to explain the meanings of 大, 成, and 会 as in their "result complementary" uses to you, I'd say:

  • 大: (to the extent of being) big/bigger. cf. 张嘴 (open one's mouth) vs. 张大嘴 (open wide one's mouth)
  • 成: into (other things). cf. 切 (cut) vs. 切成 (cut into)
  • 会: (to the extent that one can) master (something). cf. 学 (study, learn) vs. 学会 (master)

These are ad hoc comparisons, but they should suffice to refute any impression that the words are so difficult that equivalents in English are not to be found, while the notes you sought help from seems to have no scruples about introducing needless verbosity in its explanation.

It appears that Chinese doesn't have "prepositions" like "into" or even "down"

Chinese does have prepositions; it's just that prepositions often double as other parts of speech like verb, noun, adverb or even adjective in Chinese. @王博龙 has explained it really well.

But if you are a native Chinese speaker, how do you define "to know how to x" without the 4 words "to, know, how, to"?

I'm confounded. Are you looking for general word-to-word semantic correspondence across languages? That's ambitious.


P.S. If you want to "learn how other languages outside of English organize their grammars", my recommendation is that you go for Japanese. Japanese is no less different from English than Chinese is, and its learning materials are orders of magnitude more abundant for English speakers. More importantly, Japanese is closer to being adequately described in terms of syntax and morphology, so it presents its learners with a better constructed grammar system. In any event, I can say for sure that you would be less impeded by such questions as this with Japanese.

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English and Chinese are not sooo different, languagewise. It's just the mess that is known as Western Grammar confuses people like you with it's axioms, unfounded assumptions and arrogant monopolistic claim on being the sole arbiter of The Truth About Language.

大: big 弄大:make (sth) big
成: become = be + come
会: can, Old English 1st and 3rd person singular present indicative of cunnan "to know," cf. Modern German kennen, know: Ich kenne es, I know it

A dictionary definition of 会 in it's meaning of know. Note the complete lack of prepositions in this definition!

(6) 懂得 [know]。 如:他会英文;他会做思想工作

我走下楼梯。

我: me, a name I call myself (Julie Andrews!)
走: walk
下: down
楼: building (here a descriptor)
梯: stairs, ladder

If it appears to you that Chinese does not have prepositions, you should reassess what you have learnt. No language can work without prepositions! Prepositions locate.

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