The Doorknob Theory of Chinese

A few years back, Nicholas Kristof wrote a New York Times column about the Peace Corps that might have gone unnoticed—as much as a Nicholas Kristof column can go unnoticed—if he hadn’t mentioned doorknobs. Kristof called it his “one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign language and culture: What’s the word for doorknob?”

Call it “Doorknobgate.” The idea had its immediate detractors. As you might guess, I’m one of them. Regardless of your political affiliation, you have to hate what followed: “I would bet that those people who know how to say doorknob in Farsi almost invariably oppose a military strike on Iran.”

For one thing, it assumes that all words are created equal—that it’s as important to know 大男子主义(dà nán zǐ zhǔ yì) as it is to know 动作(dòng zuò). At a minimum, that’s not how the HSK is structured; more importantly, that’s not how language acquisition works. Certain words are simply used more frequently than others, and you’re more likely to remember what you come across, and use, in daily life. I can’t remember the last time I asked someone to turn the doorknob, but I do remember the last time I asked someone to open the door.

But here’s the bigger problem: The Doorknob Theory of Language assumes fluency increases as vocabulary increases, which is entirely untrue. My own vocabulary is full of white elephants—I know, and will probably never get to use, the Classical term for the kind of wispy hair that grows on your temples (鬓 bìn) and the verb 馘 (guó), which means to cut off the left ear of the slain—but can fall disappointingly flat when communicating nuanced emotions, or choosing the right verb to narrate a geopolitical upheaval (经过jīng guò? 通过tōng guò? 遭遇zāo yù?)

Fluency increases as you acquire vocabulary intelligently. That means knowing the context. It’s part of a shift in second-language learning that’s been happening over the past few decades: a movement from structural learning, which relies on memorizing lists (parts of speech, Latin declensions, all that jazz) to functional and interactive learning, which treat language as your means to an end. Are you learning Chinese to speak with family? Read the classics? Bone up on foreign policy? Learn it like you’ll use it.

That’s true of every language. But for the Chinese learner, there are special challenges: which verbs and objects to use in collocations, which verbs of motion and which verb complements, and how to handle the fossilized little pools of Classical Chinese that you find in 成语 (idiom). If all you have is a lengthy mental list of nouns and verbs, with little ability to spontaneously use them, that’s not fluency. That’s a party trick.

The key, then, is to memorize contexts. That means phrases, sentences, songs. It means reading and listening to the news, noticing which verbs appear over and over with the same nouns, and not really with anything else. Every time you learn a new word, make sure you jot down a few examples of how and when to use it. Otherwise, you may be lucky enough to know doorknob, but that doesn’t mean you know how to say open the door. (For added support when you’re writing essays or deliberating over a word choice, check out a corpus site like Jukuu.)

In fact, vocabulary can often be a hindrance to language acquisition. How long have you been studying Chinese? How long did it take you to start reading real-people material—what’s written for actual native speakers, not cooked up for a stilted dialogue about shopping for fruit or marveling at socialist advances? When it comes to Chinese, you can easily spend hours on four or five pages. When you’re done, chances are you remember the new words you’ve been forced to look up, but not necessarily the context, the story, or new expressions.

That’s where a site like Foreigncy comes in. We find relevant news articles and translate the key words, but also the doorknobs that would normally send you scrambling to a dictionary. By making flashcards from news articles for you before you read them, you can focus on what’s actually happening in the story, and move on to learning contexts. That’s how you start opening doors.

Oh yeah. Which verb do you use to turn a doorknob? It’s 拧 (nǐng). Let’s see Nicholas Kristof try that with Farsi.

Jamie Fisher

Jamie is a Mandarin linguist at Foreigncy and also a recent graduate, with double majors in Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Cultures. She specializes in Mandarin Chinese, with writing fluency in both Simplified and Traditional characters and has studied abroad in Taiwan and Guangzhou (Canton), China. Foreigncy is a language learning website for intermediate to advanced learners that uses mixed media tools to prepare you to read foreign language news articles and build a comprehensive vocabulary.