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他想学习中文 translates in google translate as -- He wants to learn Chinese

But how about translating it as -- He wants to study Chinese.

In English there is a subtle difference between the 2 words/statements. The first statement is more aspirational and not talking of action or steps to get to the objective. The second statement speaks of a more immediate step or task to do -- which is to actually study. So, which one is a better translation here?

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  • In the title, you mean 学习 and not 想, I assume?
    – Olle Linge
    Oct 7, 2023 at 7:14
  • Perhaps due to the necessity for compression in titles, he carried the "subtlety" a step too far? :) Oct 7, 2023 at 7:32
  • oh sorry. fixed that
    – user55570
    Oct 7, 2023 at 10:47
  • As far as I can tell, the difference between "learn" and "study" in English is negligible. Like when I check for synonyms for "learn" on a random website, "study" comes up at the top. Oct 10, 2023 at 2:07

4 Answers 4

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I believe in this exercise of comparing whether study or learn is technically a better translation for this specific sentence, the answer is very firmly study.

I say this based on many other situations where 學習 is very firmly used for study, such as:

describing the act of studying itself in a meta way (學習應該按部就班循序漸進 studying must be done step by step)

comparing studying ability to others (我學習不及他刻苦I don't study as much as him)

describing study of a specific subject (她學習物理很愛鑽研she studies physics very seriously)

To be clear at the end of the day, the term learning and the term study are very closely related and often interchangable, even in english. In chinese, it may not even be possible to completely draw a line between these two-- they are ususally conveyed by the same terms and are inherently connected.

However, these example sentences using this vocab term in chinese are all similar to the use of your sentence, and I do think these uses all very firmly match study in english. So hopefully this helps (╹◡╹)

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他想学习中文

Since it is 想, meaning "thinking" about it, I would go for "more aspirational", i.e. "He wants to learn Chinese"

An "action or steps to get to the objective" would be 他正在学习中文 or 他想学好他的中文, if you want to retain the 想?

Just my personal view of course as trying to indicate the "subtlety" which you see in the English context may not be that easy to attain in Chinese.

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I would say that the two notions are very close in meaning and usually only distinguishable in context (similarly to how the German word lernen, for example, can often be translated as either study or learn depending on the sentence).

That said, without further context, I believe that "study" is technically the better translation of 学习.

He wants to study Chinese > 他想学习中文

If you don't mean to say "study" specifically, you could either go broader in scope, using the more ambiguous word 学 on its own, or you could use a compound that narrows down the notion of 学 to specifically and unequivocably mean "learn", such as 学好 or 学会.

He wants to learn Chinese > 他想学好/学会中文

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In the most common context, as suggested in Google, someone says this when "he" shows the interest in eventually master this language, that is why Google translated it that way.

So without any context, using the most common context is more preferable.

However, if you have the context that this sentence was made by him when he was talking about the plan for an action, then "study" is also good.

I guess the confusion is from the use of the language itself: Yes, without context, the sentence itself could present two meanings. 学习 can mean both "learn" and "study". Ambiguity exists. :-)

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  • Quote:- "学习 can mean both "learn" and "study" OP already knows that. What OP wants to know is, is there "a subtle difference between the 2 words/statements" as in the English context, and if so, which one is a better translation here? You said "the sentence itself could present two meanings." What are the two meanings? Oct 8, 2023 at 1:41
  • Quote: What OP wants to know is, is there "a subtle difference between the 2 words/statements" as in the English context. -- What are you talking about? There is only one Chinese sentence/word in the OP's question!
    – 王博龙
    Oct 10, 2023 at 8:42

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