What is a word?

When you look at written English it’s easy to identify the words as they have spaces between them. In the case of hyphenated compounds, such as mother-in-law, some people would count them individually as single words, others as a single unit. In other written languages it isn’t always easy to recognise where one word ends and the next begins, especially languages like Thai which only have spaces at the end of sentences. In Chinese each syllable is written with a separate character and there are no spaces between them. Chinese words may consist of one, two or more syllables and one of the challenges of reading Chinese is learning where the word boundaries are.

In spoken language there are usually no spaces between words, except when people want to really emphasise something. Instead words run into one another in a continuous stream of sound. Yet when you listen to your native language, and any other languages you know, you can hear individual words. You perform this amazing feat mainly by recognising individual words in the stream, which tells you that there are other words on either side of them. When you hear unfamiliar words or names, you may have to ask for them to be repeated, perhaps several times, so that you can process them.

When you listen to a language you’re learning you may be able to pick out nothing at all, or only odd words at first. Names of famous people and places and international words like internet and telephone might spring out at you. As you learn more of the language you’ll be able pick out more words, until eventually you can distinguish and understand almost all of them. This will probably take quite a long time, and you’ll have to listen to the language frequently, but it is definitely worth the effort if you want to become really proficient in the language.