Dariya Lopukhina

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How to Learn and Retain Chinese Vocabulary

How to Learn and Retain Chinese Vocabulary
Learning vocabulary plays a vital role in mastering Chinese. It’s also important to find a way to mitigate the “forgetting curve”, i.e. retain the words you learned before in the long-term memory.

Basically, there are two main methods of memorizing Chinese vocabulary: associative and rote. Both methods work and both can be effective if done correctly.

Associative methods

Associative learning methods (like learning the radicals, drawing cartoons, and creating stories to provide meaning to the characters) work best when speed is not your priority and you want to explore the Chinese language in depth.

Reading (or inventing) stories about the origin and true meaning of each character, learning the principles of strokes, stroke order, and formation of characters, all these activities are very helpful. The more information associated with a character you know, the more likely you are to retain it for a long time. However, it forces you to invest significant time in memorizing each character.

Rote methods

Rote learning is a method of memorizing vocabulary through repetition and practice. It’s a kind of mechanic learning that enables you to repeat it, rather than to understand the origins or meaning of each character as deeply as with associative methods.

With rote learning, you can dramatically increase your Chinese vocabulary in a short period of time. This entails a major benefit - you can do something with the characters you are learning, like read or write. The ability to use these characters, in its turn, helps strengthen your familiarity with the words:

  • quickly learning new Chinese words lets you read more material sooner,
  • reading helps strengthen your understanding of the words you learned,
  • strengthened understanding helps you learn quicker and makes the learned words stick.

Rote learning is often considered boring. But it remains to be the most popular and, when applied duly, effective, way to learn Chinese words. It is particularly helpful for accelerating memorization and learning large amounts of materials, for example when you need to learn a few hundred (or thousand) characters to pass your upcoming HSK exam.

Of course, not all repetition is equal. Successful learning by repetition requires novelty to keep the brain engaged. Besides, you need to review what you’ve learned from time to time, or you are likely to forget it. This is where spaced repetition beats any other method I’ve tried.

The idea of spaced repetition is to make you continuously review previously learned material with increasing intervals between each repetition. This helps to move knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. It doesn’t really speed up the process but significantly increases retention of the stuff you need to remember.

Spaced repetition is a scientifically confirmed way to remember everything you study, and it works particularly well for learning Chinese vocabulary. There are online tools like Anki or Hack Chinese, that use SRS-based algorithms to gradually introduce new words each day and ensure you don’t forget what you’ve learned.

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