Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese language question triage: When to ask whom about what

When learning Chinese, questions inevitably crop up as we encounter problems either while exposing ourselves to the language (listening and reading) or when we produce the language (speaking and writing).

  • What does nìngyuàn mean? How is it used? Can it also be pronounced níngyuàn?
  • What does 得 mean in this sentence? How is it different from 地?
  • Is it correct to say both 好久不见 and 很久不见?
  • What’s the difference between 会, 能 and 可以?

…and so on. Being curious and actively probing the language you’re learning is good in general, but it also leads to an endless number of questions. If you’re immersed in a learning environment and are surrounded by teachers and helpful native speakers, this isn’t much of a problem, but for most students, finding answers to questions is not that easy.

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In this article, I will discuss how to handle all these questions. In essence, the easier a question is, the more important it is that we find ways of answering it on our own, which means we save the precious time of teachers and friends for trickier questions. This ought to be common sense, but based on my own experience and observations both as a student and a teacher, learners typically ignore this. Hence, this article.

What language question triage is and why you need it

Triage is a word commonly used in hospitals, describing a system for deciding who receives care first based on the severity of their problems, with the ultimate goal of helping as many as possible with limited resources. I’ve borrowed this term for this article to describe how we can deal with language questions in a way that benefits our learning as much as possible.

Triage is needed because resources are limited. If we study diligently, we will encounter many more questions than we can possibly find answers to. Most of these questions we never ask or might not even think about, and people also feel differently about things they don’t know, where some shrug and others can’t rest until they’ve found an answer.

Learners also have different resources for coping with questions they have. People who have studied Chinese for many years have often built up a network of  native speakers and teachers they can rely on when they have questions. Still, I always try to answer my own questions before asking others.

Students who recently started learning Chinese in their home country might find it much harder to find people to ask, and don’t know how to answer questions themselves. And as JP has pointed out in the comments, new learners don’t know to ask questions in a good way either.

Even if you do have a few native friends, you can’t just bombard them with questions every five minutes or you risk having no native friends any more. Friends are friends primarily, not teachers, dictionaries or grammar books. If you have a large number of friends, you can of course spread the questions among them to decrease the load on each individual. You can also team up with someone learning your native language and explicitly agree to answer each other’s questions. If you’re eager to help others, they will of course be more willing to help you.

Basic guidelines for Chinese language question triage

Below, I have present various ways of answering your language questions. While the list is not numbered, I start with methods you can use independently and gradually move to those that require the help of others. How closely you should follow the steps here depends on how easy your access to answers is, so if you have someone you exchange questions with all the time, skipping to the last step is fine.

  • Try answering the question on your own – This is not a straightforward process but there are many tools you can use apart from the obvious (dictionaries, grammar references, textbooks), such as search engines (don’t forget image search), social media, Wikipedia (check how something is described in one language, then switch to the page in another language), corpora, language forums (search and see if someone else has already answered your question).
  • Ask people who are professionally obliged to help you – If you have someone who is supposed to help you with these kinds of questions, such as a teacher, tutor or language exchange partner, ask them. You know these people at least partly because you want to develop your language skills, so there is nothing wrong asking lots of questions. For most people, this resource is limited, though, or it might come with a reciprocity clause (you’re supposed to help help them if they help you).
  • Ask publicly  – There are many places on the internet where you can ask questions about learning Chinese. For instance, check out Chinese Forums, reddit or Stack Exchange. The important thing here is that you ask people in general and whoever feels like answering will just post a reply. I often skip this step if I want a quick answer or if I don’t want to ask publicly for some other reason. Still, this resource is very useful for some questions, particularly those that are best answered by advanced second language learners rather than native speakers. It can also be great for very hard questions. I wrote more about this here: 5 websites to help answer your questions about Chinese
  • Ask people you know in general – This is probably only possible using social media, but is quite useful sometimes. If you have a question, try asking it on Facebook or Twitter. If you have native speaking friends or other learners more advanced than you, someone might feel inclined to answer. Still, you’re putting no pressure on specific people to help you.
  • Ask someone you know in particular – Asking someone who doesn’t have a professional connection with you should only be done if you know for sure they don’t find it annoying or after you’ve tried other methods of answering the question. Friends are friends, not teachers. Normal social rules apply.

As you might have noticed, much of what I’ve written is about utilising resources in the best possible way. It’s also about not wasting resources if you don’t have to; it’s about not annoying your friends too much, but still asking them when you need to. To further escape this problem, there is one last thing you can do.

Collect questions and ask them later

It’s quite annoying to have someone ask twenty small questions spread out during the day and regardless if people tell you that it’s not a problem, they probably still think that it is. Thus, collect questions and save them. I have a simple text file on my desktop where I save different kinds of questions, and I’ve also used a special notebook for this purpose. When I feel there is a good opportunity, I take a few of them and ask friends, either over the internet or in person.

I also tag the questions to be able to ask the right person. This sounds fancy, but it’s just a matter of adding a letter in front of the question, so “P” = pronunciation, “C” = characters, “G” = grammar, and so on. Some people I know are very good at specific things, so it’s nice to easily find questions they are well-placed to answer.

A delay between the question popping up and asking someone about can also serve as a natural filter. Not all questions are important, and if you go through your list now and then, you’ll realise that some of the questions you asked maybe aren’t that interesting after all and can be safely ignore. If they truly are important, you will encounter them again.


Ultimately, language question triage is about being a reasonable person and not imposing yourself too much on others. If you can solve a problem on your own in fifteen seconds, what makes it okay to occupy someone else’s time to solve the problem for you? And even if it were okay to do so, it would still important to develop strategies for answer questions on your own, partly because it saves time, but mostly because you won’t always be able to rely on others. In any situation where resources are limited, triage is important!

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  1. Harland says:

    Meh, I’ve almost stopped asking on chinese-forums.com. Too academic there. I’ve asked how a word is used, and people just look it up in the dictionary and post that, instead of their real-life experiences. Chinese-forums tends to specialize in Beijinghua at the cost of Mandarin as it is actually used…not a surprise as it seems most of their senior posters are students or professors who live in Beijing.

  2. murrayjames says:


    That hasn’t been my experience on Chinese-forums. The site has posters from all over, including native speakers from HK, mainland China and Taiwan. What sub-forum are you posting in?

  3. vermillon says:

    That’s called civility (or savoir-vivre) I believe, and of course its application is not restricted to language learning. But indeed, language learning is a field where people tend to forget about the basic social conventions.

  4. I usually start with Step 1 (figure it out yourself) and then go quickly to Step 5 if I have doubts or need confirmation, usually by online chat. People who know me know me as a language learner, and I try as much as possible to create 關係 wherever possible. That means a) I become genuine friends with these people, not just using them for their native speaker intuitions, and b) I drop everything to help them when they need me for my native language.

    I think one thing that helps is that I know a lot of language teachers/professionals; so I can get very reliable judgments from them.

    Another thing that helps is that I’ve learned to identify exactly what I need, and ask very precise questions. A lot of my students don’t know how to ask a precise question, so I’m having to teach that as a skill.

    I don’t think I’ve ever done a forum before, but I have asked Facebook once or twice.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think one thing that helps is that I know a lot of language teachers/professionals; so I can get very reliable judgments from them.

      I think this is an important non-language related step in learning a language. I’m in the same situation as you and I think that have helped me a lot. I wonder how one would go about to create that situation deliberately…

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