Mixing up Chinese words

I find it weird how, in English, my attention to detail is pretty amazing/anal but in Chinese, it’s abysmal.  Thanks to my past experience in editing and proof-reading, I will often notice (and be irked by) something as minor as an italicised comma, even when just reading for fun.  I won’t even mention spelling or punctuation mistakes.  I’ve always been a good speller, because I could usually tell a word was spelled wrong if it didn’t look right.

In Chinese though, I will often completely mix up characters that look similar – and even some that don’t!  The first ones I noticed myself mixing up were: 陪 and 部.  An understandable mistake.  Same with 夏 and 复.  But then I also found myself mixing up 填 and 坝, which are really not that similar at all.  I created a list of characters that I kept mixing up, thinking that if I figured out which particular element was confusing me, I would be less likely to mix them up in the future.  That has helped, to an extent.  

I figure the main reason I keep mixing Chinese characters up is because I’m taking in so many new words that I don’t really learn them properly.  (The fact that I don’t practise writing them probably doesn’t help, either.)  For example, I learned the word 隆重 not that long ago.  I know it well enough that when it pops up on my flashcards, I get it right.  And if I encounter the word in a text, I’ll probably be able to read it, especially if I have some contextual clues.  But although I know the fairly common character 重 well enough, if 隆 popped up in another context (e.g. in 隆冬, which I haven’t learned and only just looked up now), or, god forbid, in a pronoun, I’ll probably have to look it up, because I haven’t learned the character 隆 properly.

I’m not sure this is really a problem – after all, context is very important in Chinese and after a while, if I see a character pop up in many different words (e.g. the character 失 in 失败, 失望, 失恋, 消失 and various other contexts), I’ll learn it properly.  Whereas it’s not important for me to learn the character 嚏 as in 喷嚏 properly, because it doesn’t really pop up in any other words/contexts anyway (except possibly in a pronoun or a loanword, which is why I hate those).

That being said, I still find it a bit bizarre how I can be so alert to minor differences between words in English (to the point where it feels like my spidey-sense tingles if there’s something a bit off), yet be quite oblivious to rather large differences in Chinese.  I hope my Chinese spidey-sense will develop with time.


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