One Chinese Character, Multiple Pronunciations

How to learn the pronunciation of tricky Chinese characters

和 character
爱学习的饭桶 /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Most Chinese characters have only one correct pronunciation (syllable plus tone), but there are many characters that have many pronunciations which also have different meanings. Such characters can be hard to learn, so what we're going to do in this article, apart from looking at a few examples, is to discuss how to learn these characters.

The Worst Case Scenario Looks Really Bad...

The character 和 has many different meanings and pronunciations, but most beginners have learned this word early on to express "and," such when you join two nouns or pronouns together: 你和我 (nǐ hé wǒ) "you and me". However, if you look this character up in a dictionary, you will see as many as seven different definitions, here from Patrick Zein's list of the 3000 most common characters:

  • [hé] together, with, (F龢) harmony, gentle, mild, kind, <family name>; 和平 hépíng peace
  • [Hé] Japan
  • [huo] 暖和 nuǎnhuo nice and warm
  • [hè] join in singing, compose a poem in reply
  • [huó] mix with water
  • [huò] mix, blend
  • [hú] complete a set in Mahjong

...But, Fortunately, It Isn't as Bad as It Looks

Fortunately, most of those pronunciations are very rare and most learners needn't worry about them at all. They are used in very specific situations or in a certain word or expression, making it almost useless to learn them separately. More about how to learn these characters later, though, let's look at some more examples first.

Different but Related Meanings

There is a fair number of characters that can be pronounced in two ways which meanings are related but not the same. Here is an example where a tone change makes the difference between a verb and a noun:

  • 教 (jiāo) "to teach", for example 教书 (jiāoshū) "to teach", 教会 (jiāohuì) "to show, to teach"
  • 教 (jiào) "teaching", for example 教室 (jiàoshì) "classroom", 教授 (jiàoshòu) "professor"

Another example of this is 中 which can be pronounced both as "zhōng" and "zhòng", the first being the most basic meaning "middle" and the second meaning "to hit (a target)".

Sometimes the difference is bigger, but the meaning is still related. These two words are very common in beginner textbooks:

  • 长 (cháng) "long", for example in 长城 (chángchéng), 长短 (chángduǎn) "length"
  • 长 (zhǎng) "to grow, chief", for example in 长大 (zhǎngdà) "to grow up", 船长 (chuánzhǎng) "captain"

Completely Different Meanings

In some cases, the meanings are completely unrelated, at least on a practical, superficial level. The meanings might once have been related, but it's not easy to see that in modern Chinese. For example:

  • 会 (huì) "can, meeting, society" 学会 (xuéhuì) "to learn", 开会 (kāihuì) "to have a meeting"
  • 会 (kuài) "accounting", as in 会计 (kuàijì) "accounting"

How to Learn Characters With Multiple Pronunciations

The best way to learn these pronunciations is through context. You shouldn't isolate the character 会 and learn that it has two pronunciations "kuài" and "huì" and what they mean. Instead, learn words or short phrases where they appear. You will find that the "kuài" pronunciation almost exclusively appears in the word listed above, so if you know that, you'll be fine.

There are of course tricky cases such as 为 which has grammatical functions both when it's pronounced "wéi" and "wèi", and it can be tricky to figure out which one is which without being good at grammar. Still, this is a rare exception and most of these characters with multiple pronunciations can be learned simply by focusing on their most common occurrences.