Why Learning a Word isn’t as Simple as You Thought

Word of the Week: miàn bāo

I’ve never spoken to a European living in China who didn’t miss bread. I mean real bread, without 白砂糖 bǎi shā táng (refined white sugar) listed on the ingredients and definitely without 红豆 hóng dòu red beans perforating it throughout.

This might just be a consequence of the places I’ve lived, maybe people living in the more cosmopolitan areas of Shanghai and Beijing don’t have this problem. The very first time I went to China was back in 2010 when I was studying Mandarin and teaching English at a small college in the middle of nowhere. Or, as the Chinese would put it 一个鸟不拉屎的地方 yí gè niǎo bù lā shǐ de dì fāng (a place where birds wouldn’t even shit).

Back then the only place I could get bread was from some Uighur guys who had a little noodle restaurant with a big oven out the front where they would bake fresh naan bread. That was honestly the best bread I’ve ever tasted. So one day, when I was walking past with a Chinese friend, I said (in English) “oh, I want to get some bread from those Uighur guys.”


A Uighur man making bread

I was surprised by my friend’s reaction, which was a slightly incredulous “bread? That’s not bread!” To which I asked “well if it’s not bread what is it then?” My friend was unable to answer this one and simply responded with “it’s..it’s…it’s bǐng”.

It took me a few seconds to figure out the problem. The problem is that the English word “bread” is usually translated as 面包 miàn bāo. This translation is perfectly adequate if you’re talking about a loaf of sliced white (吐司面包 tǔ sī miàn bāo) or a French baguette (法式面包 fǎ shì miàn bāo) but the boundaries of meaning that these words encompass don’t correlate exactly. Basically, there are things that English speakers call “bread” (like naan bread) that are not called miàn bāo in Chinese. Similarly, there are things that Chinese people call miàn bāo that English speakers don’t call bread (like cinnamon swirls, croissants and other pastries).


These pastries are all miàn bāo

It gets more complicated though, because 饼 bǐng doesn’t exactly mean “naan bread” or even “flat bread”. It’s actually used for almost any type of food that is flat, round and (usually) carbohydrate based. So that hash brown with your MacDonald’s breakfast is a bǐng too. And that moon cake with an egg in the middle? Yeah, that’s also a bǐng.

Your Chinese wife coming back from the supermarket with a packet of chocolate eclairs when you wanted her to get a loaf of bread is of course a bit of an inconvenience, but as a professional language teacher and amateur language learner I of course know that the implications of this discrepancy between the boundaries of meaning is far greater than that. In fact, with concrete nouns like bread it is easy to spot and compensate for this discrepancy. It’s more of a problem when you’re using abstract concepts or even adjectives that might have the same meaning but very different connotations.

What I’m saying is that when learning a language you can’t simply rely on your dictionary and flash cards to build up vocabulary. You need to learn vocabulary in context. But it’s much more than that, you need to learn the same word in multiple different contexts and you need to learn what that word doesn’t mean as well as what it does mean. miàn bāo means bread but it also means pastry. It does not, however, mean naan bread.

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