What Is The Best Way To Learn Chinese Vocabulary?

When it comes to learning a new language, where do you even start?

Any time you’re exposed to the target language is an opportunity for you to pick up new words – or solidify your understanding of words you’ve come across before. But navigating the landscape of vocabulary acquisition tools can be tricky. How do you figure out what the most efficient learning method is?


Linguistic research claims that in order to adequately comprehend any foreign language text, you need to know at least 95% of the vocabulary shown. With Chinese being one of the more time-consuming languages to learn, it’s important to choose a programme that optimises the vocabulary learnt. Key methods in which to do this include flashcard systems and graded readers.


Flashcard Systems


Flashcard systems generally consist of a word or phrase written on one side of a card, and a definition or explanation on the other side. These explanations often contain tips, component information, and example sentences. This allows the learner to form an association between the two sides, thus making it easier to acquire the vocabulary.



With so many words to learn, online flashcard systems are much more convenient than creating your own flashcards (although there are benefits to writing the characters out by hand). It quickly becomes a nightmare trying to keep track of 500+ hand-written flashcards, then figuring out which ones need revising and which ones don’t.


Spaced Repetition


Flashcard systems often follow spaced repetition logic. This allows for efficient memorisation by scheduling reviews of each flashcard at increasing intervals to ensure long-term acquisition. 


While it is crucial to develop an extensive vocabulary, focusing solely on memorising vocabulary can result in a lack of understanding of grammar structures and how that vocabulary is used in context. As a result, a learner may not understand a given text, even when they understand each of the individual words.


Graded Readers


A graded reader is a book or short story that contains simplified vocabulary, catered specifically to beginners. Graded readers can be an excellent way of solidifying the vocabulary you already know, and learning more about how these words can be put together in a meaningful way.


Graded readers are often based on the frequency and usefulness of vocabulary. This means that they tend to focus on vocabulary that is used most frequently in everyday conversations and the written language. The Mandarin Companion series and the Graded Chinese Reader series are two graded readers that I highly recommend.


Although graded readers are useful for learners with large existing vocabulary bases, how does one obtain this knowledge in the first place? While some learners may simply take the list of vocabulary used in the graded reader and memorise it beforehand, others will read the graded reader before they are anywhere near the 95% mark, thus not getting the full benefits.


Intermediate to Advanced Learners


Once you’ve covered the basics – roughly level 3 or level 4 of the HSK – you’re going to find yourself reading and listening to more material that actually interests you. You’re going to come across a lot of words you don’t know, so the question is, what is the best way of approaching new words you encounter?


The first thing I would recommend is to not try and memorise every single unknown word you come across. This is a sure way to bore yourself to death, and really isn’t the most efficient way of approaching the problem.


When I come across words I don’t know, I go through the following thought process:



Other Methods


Jotting down new words as you hear (or read) them – This can be highly effective as long as you have some way of revising them (either through a flashcard system, or by repeating them in conversation).


Copying words out of a dictionary – Not recommended unless you want to fall asleep.



So what is the best approach?


While there is no “one size fits all” approach that will suit everyone, it is certainly clear that there a smart ways of approaching vocabulary learning, and not so smart ways. What’s important is that you find a method that works for you.



At Speedy Vocab, we’ve designed a course which takes advantage of both flashcard systems and graded readers, as well as using spaced repetition. The idea being that you learn the vocabulary initially though flashcards, then revise what you’ve learnt using sentences activities. The sentences only contain vocabulary that you have already studied, so it’s like a graded reader that’s constantly adapting to your current level.


Using our “Smart Sentence” activities not only helps strengthen your memory of previously learnt vocabulary, but also gives you exposure to grammar and sentence structures at the same time!



To explore Speedy Vocab’s unique learning system, click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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