Learning a new language sometimes feels like parachuting from high altitude and landing in a foreign and sometimes also hostile land. Slowly, you establish a base camp; you start exploring your surroundings. You start building up confidence, you start knowing your way around. As you reach the intermediate level, you know the area close to your camp pretty well and you start exploring the high mountains and deep valleys beyond, gaining ever more experience. However, the larger the territory you explore becomes, the longer becomes the perimeter. As the area increases, it also becomes more and more difficult to make sure that you haven’t overlooked something important.
Just because you can read an advanced text doesn’t mean that you know everything on the intermediate level
It’s easy to fool yourself and believe that because you can read a text at a certain level, it means you master everything below that, which is never the case, not even for native speakers. Your map might reach far and wide, but there will always be hidden caves and valleys that you haven’t visited, sometimes really close to home. In other words, dropping the metaphors for a while, you might know how to say “claustrophobia”, “recession” and “promulgate” in Chinese, but if you haven’t been exposed to enormous amounts of Chinese, it’s very likely that there are fairly easy words that you don’t know. The problem is that you don’t know that you don’t know them.
Finding and mapping unknown terrain
There are basically two ways to improve your map:
- Expose yourself to huge volumes of Chinese
- Use frequency dictionaries and compiled word lists
The first one is what native speakers do and what we should do as much as we can. However, saying that we should simply listen and read more Chinese is not very helpful (and it has already been said many times on Hacking Chinese), so in this case we’re going to focus on the second method. I have touched upon this subject before when talking about using more than one textbook to diversify vocabulary, but using frequency lists is taking the same thinking one step further. I have also written about memorising dictionaries, which also touches on the same topic.
It’s fairly straightforward: use a frequency list (you can use official lists for HSK preparation or similar) and go through them to see what words you don’t know. If you combine this with proper flashcard software and just import the lists and see what you lack, this will only take a few minutes. It allows you to find words you ought to know (or at least that someone thinks you ought to know), but don’t. If you haven’t got all your words in a program already, it might still be worth the effort going through the words manually.
Learn words below your expected level
Note that I’m talking about learning words within the limits of the map you already have. I do not suggest that you use only word lists to expand your vocabulary in general. In other words, if you think that you are on an intermediate level, use this method to learn beginner-level words. If you’re advanced, don’t use this method to learn advanced words, but anything below that is cool.
Some practical aspects and an example
I use Anki and some time ago I had around 15000 cards in my Chinese deck. This means that I should know a significant amount of words, but as we shall see, there were many I tried adding TOCFL lists (the Taiwanese HSK equivalent) , but I tried it with the HSK lists as well and the results were similar. I imported these lists to Anki, which of course rejected words already in my list. This is what I did and how it turned out.
- Adding the beginner words (800) gave me two words I didn’t know
- Adding the basic words (+1600) gave me roughly a dozen new words
- Adding the intermediate words (+3400) gave me a couple of hundred words
- Adding the advanced words (+2800) gave me over one thousand new words
Naturally, you should stop at a decent level. Adding a thousand new words is quite a daunting task, so I would advice against doing that. The point here is not to cram in more words (even though you can do that if you want to, of course), but rather to note that there were words on the easier levels I didn’t know. Not all of these were words I truly didn’t know; some of them just wasn’t in my deck, but a significant number were words I actually didn’t know.
Special note for traditional characters in Anki: There is a plugin called Traditional Hanzi Statistics which will compare your deck with a list of characters based on frequency and see what words and/or characters are lacking. This plugin is extremely useful.
This is a good example of a map that is very spread out and has lots of blank areas. Considering that my deck consisted of more than twice the number of words than the complete list of vocabulary for the test, it goes without saying that I know a lot more words than required for the advanced level. However, there were more than one thousand words I didn’t know!
What does that mean? It means that there were one thousand words someone responsible for preparing the word lists thought important, but that I hadn’t learnt yet. Regardless if I’m preparing for that test or if I’m just thirsty for knowledge is irrelevant, adding these words is truly useful, provided that you use good word lists. Regarding the words I didn’t know in the beginner, basic and intermediate lists, let me just say that there were some words I was amazed that I actually didn’t know how to say in Chinese!
Advanced level context
When learning words that are very common, I don’t think that spending time to find good example sentences is necessary, especially when we’re talking about nouns and verbs that are fairly straightforward to use. You will pick up how to use common words simply by listening and reading if you do it enough. Combine this with speaking and writing practise and you’ll be fine.
This is not true on an advanced level, though, because you’ll be much less likely to encounter the words you learn again. Thus, I strongly suggest that you learn any advanced words in contexts and with at least one clear example of how to use it. If you doubt the validity or correctness of your sentence, ask a friend or use Lang-8 (you can post several sentences at once and ask people questions about them).
Whether for test preparation or simply to enhance your vocabulary, using frequency lists is really useful. It might be incredibly hard to find these words, which might be embarrassing/bad/catastrophic if you don’t know them. The outcome depends on why you want to learn Chinese in the first place, but I think that we can all agree that learning words that are actually below our average level is desirable regardless of how far we’ve come in our studies.