So what is the best way to learn Chinese vocabulary?
When investing time into learning a language, you want to see quick and consistent results. Below I share my personal method for learning Chinese vocabulary to help you do just that.
My Method for Learning Chinese Vocabulary
I developed my method after learning about the way my own brain works. As such, it may need to be modified slightly depending on the type of learner you are.
I find it to be very time efficient, and through it, I am able to learn 20-30 words (often comprising of more than one character) per day in under an hour of study and with a retention rate of about 90-95%. Not bad right? However, for it to actually work, you MUST do it every day or the process will fall apart.
The way it works is essentially by creating a maximum number of ‘exposures’ to the new vocabulary, spaced out over time, allowing the words to naturally move from short-term memory into long-term one by convincing the brain that the information is valuable, rather than passing stimuli to be discarded.
I believe that this repetition, coupled with the relatively stress-free context (in that I’m not forcing the words into my memory but relaxing and letting them enter naturally) is the key to its success.
Phase 1: Start mining for words.
Although one can learn vocabulary from word lists or frequency lists, I prefer finding my own words in the material I’m studying because:
a)Word lists can be overly extensive and easy to get carried away with – I once tried learning all the HSK6 Vocab as fast as I could with Memrise only to realize I forgot many of the earlier words after devoting a couple months of time into it.
b)Finding words in context is a great aid to remembering them and in particular how they are used.
My main sources for finding words are Chinese Pod’s podcasts and TV shows that can be found on Youku.com or Duonao.com. The benefit of TV shows is that they all have subtitles in Chinese characters making words easy to identify and add to your list.
Though for beginners, Chinese TV shows can be hugely intimidating, so I would stick with Chinese Pod until you are an upper-intermediate learner. Cartoons also work wonders for easy to comprehend content.
With many other languages this could be a difficult task, but due to the relatively small number of possible sounds in Chinese it is hugely easier to identify new words you hear.
When I identify a new word, I open up Pleco and search in pinyin and choose the appropriate word according to what I heard and what makes sense in the context.
You can also reference the character in the subtitle, but try first to rely on your listening and your skills of guessing from context to figure out the appropriate word.
After this, you have a list of new words to learn.
Phase 2: Select and create your list.
From the saved words in Skritter or Pleco, I then open up an Excel notebook and write each character down, with the pinyin on the right, and the definition on the far right.
Take your time writing down the new words as the goal is to learn them and not get them down on paper as fast as possible. This is the second exposure.
Phase 3: Learn the CHARACTERS.
To learn the characters, you need to understand why the character looks the way it does, each component within the character and its function, and the correct stroke order. The Outlier-Dictionary is a great tool for all this and will make learning characters easier and more memorable.
After you understand each character, go through the list and write out each character 15-20 times in a character workbook according to the appropriate stroke order. This can be tedious, but if you ask anyone in China how they learned to write characters, they will say through hard written repetition.
You should always use a character workbook over any standard notebook for the reason that the grids in character workbooks help you with ensuring each character you write is specific to the appropriate dimensions and size.
Many words will be easy especially when they contain a character I already know. I move on to the next character when I’m confident that I have sufficiently memorized the character. This is the third exposure.
Phase 4: Learn the Chinese Vocabulary (with Skritter)
Next, I open up Skritter (a spaced-repetition flashcard software) and start reviewing the new words along those that I have learned previously. Skritter tests your recognition and recall memory respectively.
Find a time of day to where you will devote a block of time to doing Skritter repetitions. New words are learnt in a practically effortless, and, dare I say it, fun way.
Do your best to avoid getting behind and skipping days on Skritter. As soon as you start skipping days, not only does the efficiency of the method decrease, but you start to slack off with your Chinese. So do it every day! Promise yourself! This is the fourth exposure to the words.
Phase 5: Learn how to USE the vocabulary.
It’s all very well and good to know that 礼貌 means manners or courtesy, but you need to get some more exposure to accurately and convincingly be able to use it yourself.
Firstly, if you mined the words from a particular podcast or TV episode, watch it again!
I also use ChinesePod’s glossary – which is a fantastic tool for seeing words in their appropriate sentence context.
Another great way of getting sentences is to look up the word in Pleco and read the example sentences. es example sentences (even Pleco does this). Using Google to identify how words are actually used is another method explained further in a separate post here.
These sentences will provide numerous more exposures to the words in context as they come up when you’re doing your Skritter repetitions
Phase 6: Refresh Characters.
Unless you’re some sort of Chinese super-computer robot man/woman, you’re unfortunately going to need to go back and relearn some of the characters you have already learned.
The good news is that it is generally easy to identify early on which characters are going to be a struggle to remember.
When I’m learning my new words of the day with my trusty Excel and pen and pad combo, I also make sure I go back to the characters from the previous day or two to see if I’ve forgotten any (there are usually a few).
Then, I highlight them in yellow to designate that they may need some more writing practice before they will be committed to memory.
When I learn my new words every day, I go back to the very start of my list and start with all the yellow words. If they cease to be hard, meaning that I can remember them with ease, I take away their yellow highlight.
I also make a point to go back over the words from the last week or so (or however far back I can be bothered going) and see whether there are words that I once found easy that I am now having trouble writing accurately. If I struggle recalling any from memory, I highlight them and add them to my daily list of words to review.
This way, very few words will slip through the cracks. Without a consistent refresh, you probably won’t remember how to write the words forever.
However, if you don’t care about writing characters and only want to learn to read them, you can ease up on the character refreshes as long as you maintain a daily habit of reading that is. Otherwise you’ll forget them altogether.
Fortunately for characters that are forgotten, relearning is infinitely easier compared to learning the first time around.
The End – What’s next?
Overall this method requires a great commitment of consistency. Yet if you are willing to put in a regular amount of time, you will see your knowledge of Chinese vocabulary steadily increase.