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What is a Bigram?
A bigram, is according to the Oxford Dictionary,
“A pair of consecutive written units such as letters, syllables, or words”
In the English language, an example of a letter bigram would be ‘th’, as found in ‘the’, ‘their’ and ‘there’.
Bigrams also exist in the Chinese language, because almost all Chinese ‘words’ are made up of more than 1 character.
Although a single character has its own meaning, it is often when it is combined with another character that it is used as a word in Chinese.
Let’s look at a few examples:
工 is one of the most commonly used characters in the Chinese language and means ‘work’. However, this character is rarely used alone and it more commonly found to create the following words:
工作 (gōng zuò) – to work (工 – work + 作 – to do)
工业 (gōng yè) – industry (工 – work + 业 – business)
工资 (gōng zī) – salary (工 – work + 资 – money)
工人 (gōng rén) – worker (工 – work + 人 – person)
Single Chinese Characters
We often get questions from users on our Written Chinese Facebook page and also on our detail pages of our Online Living Dictionary.
We recently had a question about how single characters work in Chinese. He offered up the example search of the English word ‘but’.
If you search for the English word ‘but’ in the Written Chinese Dictionary, you will see several different Chinese characters that all translate to ‘but’.
As you can see in the image above, all three characters 但, 而 and 只 mean ‘but’.
If you scroll down the page showing the results of the ‘but’ search you will see different results that use the two character combination, known as a bigram.
Many ‘words’ in Chinese are often found in the form of a bigram, whilst the components of the word are the individual characters.
So if we look at the three characters in question, 但, 而 and 只, although they all mean ‘but’, once they become a bigram, their meaning becomes more useful and create words that are synonymous with the word ‘but’. Although individual characters have meaning, once they’re in the 2 character combination, their meaning (and use) often becomes more clear.
How to Use a Chinese Bigram
Below we look at the three characters 但, 而 and 只 and how they are used in a sentence.
但 / 但是 (dàn shì): But / however
我想和你一起去逛街，但是我已经和人约好了今天看电影。 (wǒ xiǎng hé nǐ yī qǐ qù guàng jiē, dàn shì wǒ yǐ jīng hé rén yuē hǎo le jīn tiān kàn diàn yǐng.) = I want to go shopping with you, however I have already arranged to watch a movie today.
而 / 而是 (ér shì): Rather
有时候，成功不在于你是否有天赋，而是取决于你是否有决心。 (yǒu shí hou, chéng gōng bù zài yú nǐ shì fǒu yǒu tiān fù, ér shì qǔ jué yú nǐ shì fǒu yǒu jué xīn.) = Sometimes, success does not depend on whether you have talent or not, rather it depends on whether you are determined or not.
只 / 只是 (zhǐ shì) = only / merely / simply
他只是我最喜欢的歌手之一。 (tā zhǐ shì wǒ zuì xǐ huan de gē shǒu zhī yī.) = He is but one of my favorite singers.
As you can see, the three characters make more sense when they are combined with another character to create a bigram.
Of course, as you’re learning Chinese, it’s natural (and important) to be able to recognize characters individually, but for me personally, learning bigrams has been much easier than struggling through individual characters.
Why You Should Learn Chinese Bigrams
I strongly suggest that all students of Chinese that are beginning to learn to read and write Chinese characters use bigrams to get started. Here are just a few reasons:
You’ll naturally begin to break down the bigram and understand the meaning of each individual character
After some time, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable about learning individual characters, especially the ones that pop up more frequently in bigrams. These characters will probably be useful to you as well!
You’ll be able to read more, faster
How is that possible? Let me tell you. If you’re learning bigrams, you’re learning 2 characters at a time. If you learn the word for world, 世界 (shì jiè) you don’t need to spend time (at least not immediately), trying to understand the meaning of each character.
You’ll be able to express yourself more and make more comprehensive sentences
Once you begin learning bigrams, and constructing your own sentences, you can post them on our Online Dictionary. Although our dictionary includes many example sentences, we think it’s awesome when people leave their own example sentences, character mnemonics and ways to remember a character or bigram.
Characters have so many different meanings it can be overwhelming, bigrams are usually limited to only a few meanings.
You might find that single characters can sometimes have many different meanings. When you use the single character with another and make a bigram, the meaning of the word can often make more sense.
For example, let’s look at the character 道 (dao).
The definition for the character include some of the following: direction / way / road / path / principle / truth / morality / reason / skill / method / to say / to speak / to talk.
Which definition should you focus on, and which is more important to learn first?
Instead of learning this sole character, it would be more useful (and save lots of confusion) to leave the bigram which includes to character 道 (dao), 知道 (zhī dao), which means ‘to know’.
Track your progress studying Chinese words with our Digital Bigram Posters.