I know both mean "to study" and I also know that while 学 (xué) is transitive, 学习 (xué xí) can be both intransitive and transitive, for example:

  1. 我学中文。 (I study «what?» Chinese) = transitive;
  2. 我在大学学习。 (I study at the university) = intransitive;
  3. 我学习中文。 (I study «what?» Chinese) = transitive.

But are there other differences? Also in usage and meaning? My grammar textbook was helpful enough but I'd like to hear something from the native speakers too. :)

  • The 2nd example should be 我在大学学习. – fefe Jan 8 '12 at 15:07
  • I don't think I can give you an answer right now. However, "学习" can be transitive. 我学习中文 is perfectly OK for me. – fefe Jan 8 '12 at 15:14
  • Well, when you feel you can, consider posting one! :) You're right, I re-checked my textbook and it confirms that. – Alenanno Jan 8 '12 at 15:18
  • cf. also 复习 and 预习 – jsj Feb 9 '12 at 6:13

Like many Chinese words, 学 and 学习 differ primarily not in meaning but in length; in many cases, 学习 is chosen over 学 because the sentence calls for a disyllabic verb for reasons of prosody.

Your example number 2 is a good one. We say 我在大学学习 not because 学习 can be used intransitively but 学 cannot be, but because the sentence *我在大学学 sounds "incomplete." (You may have already learned that many disyllabic verbs cannot be used with monosyllabic objects; this is just one example of how prosody often governs the formation of Chinese sentences.)

Many (most? all?) Chinese words come in "short" and "long" forms. Native speakers switch back and forth between these forms effortlessly as the situation requires. In many cases, fixed expressions can take one form but not the other. Just another thing we students of Chinese have to learn. :)

By the way, there is one "grammatical" difference between 学 and 学习 that I can think of off the top of my head. 学习 can be used as a noun to mean "studies" or "academic skill", e.g.

我学习很好. -> "I am good in my studies." or "I do well in school."

(I'm not sure if this is technically a noun. I think most people would gloss it as a nested topic-comment structure: 我//学习//很好.)

P.S. Most of my knowledge about this topic comes from the excellent "Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar" published by Routledge.

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  • "You may have already learned that many disyllabic verbs cannot be used with monosyllabic objects" I didn't know about that actually. Thank you! :) So there must be a matching "disyllabic verb + disyllabic word" and "monosyllabic verb + monosyllabic word"? I'll accept yours. – Alenanno Jan 13 '12 at 10:02
  • Jon's answer is pretty solid. I prefer to look at sentences instead of asking native speakers. vs. 学习 – stevendaniels Feb 23 '12 at 3:35
  • Note that "学” can also mean "studies" or "academic skill", but only in 成语 or ancient Chinese text. Example: "学无止境“。 – Earth Engine Mar 2 '14 at 11:06

I don't know the answer from a grammatical point of view, but I know both character's etymology which can give you a hint.

in its traditional form is 學, an ideogram of two hands putting something (knowledge?) into a child's head, thus teaching, and, from the child's standpoint, learning.

in its traditional form is 習, two feathered wings on top of white (originally a sun) and it meant learning or practicing how to fly, thus, practice.

So while 学 means basically to learn, 习 moves the meaning more towards learning by practice, but this is pure speculation.

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  • I knew a slightly different etymology for 学, by the way... :P – Alenanno Jan 8 '12 at 16:19
  • Please share. I got this from a book about Japanese, but it talked about the Chinese traditional character. – Petruza Jan 8 '12 at 16:21
  • Actually I got this for Japanese... It says that the part below is a kid (and we agree) but the part above represents the roof of a school, or a place to learn at, so "studying". I'm not sure this is the ultimate etymology, but it seemed reasonable. It'd be nice to know the official one, if available... :D – Alenanno Jan 8 '12 at 16:22
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    Anyway, even if interesting, your post doesn't exactly answer my question. In meaning I guess, but not usage, I was more expecting rules and examples for these rules... :) – Alenanno Jan 8 '12 at 19:28
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    I think this is a better answer for the question. 学 means to learn, 习 means to practice. e.g "子曰: 学而时习之, 不亦说乎." – Fivesheep Mar 13 '12 at 13:59

When you learn Chinese, you will get more if you know the origin of the words.

'学习' origins form the ancient sentence '学而时习之', which means that you learn (学) theory and use (习) the theory correctly. So the 学 and '学习' are a little different although you can exchange them in most cases.

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  • This is Kongzi/Confucius Analects I.1. (I use both names for clarity though I favor English speakers moving over to say Kongzi.) – Colin McLarty Mar 16 '15 at 10:06

学 is gaining knowledge or skill. 习 is to do practice. 学习 is to study something, it can be converted to a noun to mean the behavior of studying.

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I'd also add that 学 by itself feels incomplete. In most sentences, 2 characters will be required for clarity, meaning and balance. For example:

学着 (xue2zhe) studying <- I am not 100% certain if this is acceptable. Native speakers care to comment?

学会 (xue2hui4) here 会 is the complement of 学 and means that after studying, one is able to do something

学到手 (xue2dao4shou3) is also a completed form of the verb, it means to have obtained some knowledge or skill through study

学完 (xue2wan2) to finish studying

学好 (xue2hao3) either to finish studying successfully or to study well (i.e. to learn from good examples)

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「学」 can also mean "to imitate" or "to repeat after <somebody>", whereas 「学习」 does not have this meaning.

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I'm still a learner but I think 学 is study in general and 学习 is doing exercises, learning something

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