Keeping with dictionary review week, there’s a new feature on my favorite online dictionary that deserves some mention. MDBG has added the HSK vocabulary levels. While this isn’t exactly what everyone needs, it’s a step in the right direction.
Which Chinese Word Should I Use?
Even though the HSK info isn’t designed to be used like this, we can use this to help us know which Chinese synonym is more commonly used. I’m talking about “How do you say ____ in English?” when the answer could be multiple words.
For example, do a search for the English word “difference.” There are about 27 results, but only 6 have HSK ratings. Look for the lowest number and that’s probably the most common word. In this case, “fēnbié” 分别 and “qūbié” 区别 come in ahead of chābié 差别. In my experience, that’s pretty accurate. A Chinese person will use those two before chābié 差别 when asking a question like:
“What’s the difference?” = yǒu shénme qūbié? 有什么区别?
Just because a word has a lower rating, doesn’t mean it’s more commonly used. Here are a few ways the HSK info isn’t useful (to those of us not preparing to take the test):
1. HSK rating has nothing to do with spoken/written or formal/informal frequencies. For example, in my experience, computer is spoken much more frequently as “diànnǎo” 电脑 but is formally referred to (like if your major is computers in collge) as “jìsuànjī” 计算机. Both of these words appear on HSK list 3.
2. The difference between 1 and 2 is negligible. Vocabulary lists 1 and 2 are both covered by the Basic (lowest) test, so a word may appear on list 2 simply because they ran out of room on list 1. For example, “yǎnjing” 眼睛 gets an HSK rating of 1, but yǎn 眼 by itself is 2. Surely you’d know the single character before learning the two of them together.
The bottom line is: if a word has a HSK rating in the dictionary, it’s more likely to be a common word than one without a rating. Also, if I’ve got to choose between two synonyms (that really can be used interchangeably) I’m going to choose the one with the lower HSK number.
Now, if MDBG will only add a little “sort by column” feature, we’ll be in business.
Can anyone else think of a good way to use those HSK ratings?