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Friday, 12 January 2018 19:41

Comfortable Phenomenon?

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Recently I was teaching an online student from Beijing, China, and she explained she had learned from her outstanding Team teacher that the word "phenomenon" is not used very often in English, and that it refers to some occurrence that is rare, remarkable, or unusual. That student is exactly right, and her teacher taught her well! In fact, other than my book Write Like a Champion (p. 90), I am not aware of any other books that mention this little nugget of language learning. I often tell my students, "Many things in Chinese and English you cannot translate directly." "Phenomenon" is one word that DOES have a direct translation in Chinese (现象); however, the USAGE is different.   Basically, Chinese uses this word often, while English uses it rarely. Again, in English, it usually refers to some odd happening that is rare and amazing.


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  • Twins are rather rare, but having one white and one black, is a truly remarkable phenomenon, as is the case of these twin sisters in England. 


In contrast, this word is commonly used and heard in Chinese. So, when Chinese speakers speak English, they might say things like:


  • I feel frustrated when I lose my keys. Have you ever had that phenomenon before? (Sounds Chinglish)


  • It's better to say, "I feel frustrated when I lost my keys. Has that ever happened to you before?"



The same is true with the word "comfortable." This word also has a direct translation in Chinese (舒服). There is also a direct translation for "feel comfortable" (感觉舒服). However, like "phenemenon," this word is used more in Chinese than in English, and it is used in more contexts in Chinese than in English.


In English, it is USUALLY used to describe a PHYSICAL state of feeling relaxed and pleasant.

  • This new sofa is really comfortable.


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  • The students don't like the wooden chairs in their classroom; they are too uncomfortable.


        It can also describe an emotional state:

  •  I feel uncomfortable when the boss keeps staring at me.


  •   I don't feel comfortable asking to borrow too many things from my friends.


In Chinese, though, it is often used in a way relating to health or illness. So, here a Chinese speaker in English might say:


  • My stomach feels uncomfortable, so I'll have to miss school today. (Sounds Chinglish)

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Americans would probably say instead: My stomach doesn't feel well, so I'll have to miss school today. 

OR   I have a stomachache, so I'll have to miss school today.

OR   My stomach doesn't feel well, so I'll have to miss school today. 

  • My body feels uncomfortable. I want to see a doctor. (Sounds Chinglish)

(In this case too, "body" is a word that is used more in Chinese (身体) than in English.) Americans would probably say the above sentence as:


  • I don't feel well. I want to see a doctor.


  • OR    I feel sick. I want to see a doctor.



So, learning a foreign language is funny. Some things you can translate directly, and some you can't. And some words that CAN be translated directly, are used more often or rarely in different languages, and in different contexts.

The upshot? Practice, practice, practice!

Let the team at help you! Contact Scott today!





Read 21847 times Last modified on Friday, 12 January 2018 20:44
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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