Some things I write about here are generally accepted as being good or advisable, but there are areas in which I don’t agree with “received knowledge” regarding language learning. One of these areas is vocabulary. Any teacher, student or researcher will of course agree that vocabulary is very important, but few of them will go as far as I will in this direction.
Vocabulary is not merely king, it’s god emperor of the universe
Before I explain the slightly controversial part about my approach regarding vocabulary, I’m going to discuss three reasons why a broad vocabulary is so important. Most of these will be obvious, but when your read through the list, consider how much difference the size of you vocabulary actually matters (we will return to this later).
Without grammar, very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.
– David A. Wilkins (1972)
Knowing many words will…
- …greatly increase your reading and listening comprehension
- …enable you to communicate even if you know only a little grammar
- ..accelerate your learning in general, because you understand more of the language you’re exposed to
Of these, the first and the third are by far the most important effects. The second one should be obvious to most people, so let’s ignore that for now.
Knowing many words will accelerate your learning
Learning can be likened to a huge web with interconnected nodes. If your knowledge of Chinese is such a web, the more densely connected that network is, the easier it will be for you to add new nodes. As you approach a new piece of vocabulary, you will more often than not be able to relate it to something you already know. Perhaps you already know the individual characters or you might have seen similar constructions before. Thus, learning many words is an auspicious spiral which leads to an even more extended vocabulary.
Vocabulary and reading/listening comprehension
Knowing lots of words is essential if you want to make sense of anything produced by a native speaker. If you only read and listen to textbooks, you’ll feel quite safe because the authors will choose words they know that you have studied previously, but native speakers don’t do that. Even if you don’t understand the sentence pattern used or every word, if you can catch enough words, you can usually piece together what’s being said to you or something written in a book.
Do you want a sketchy map of the country or a high-resolution, full colour photo of your back yard?
So, everybody agrees that it’s important to know lots of words, big deal. I, however, believe that it’s really important to know lots of words. I prefer to have a sketchy map with lots of blank spots, but that will cover a large area, rather than having highly detailed knowledge about my back yard.
What do I mean by that? I mean that I prefer learning 1000 words with their approximate meanings and without detailed knowledge about usage and semantics, rather than learning 100 words and be able to use them perfectly in any situation.
Why? Go back to the list above and look at point one and three (point two is relevant as well, but again, that’s pretty obvious so I won’t bring it up). If you know 1000 words and hear a conversation, you are quite likely to be able to pick something up. If it’s an easy conversation, you might even be able to understand exactly what’s going on, never mind that you would never have been able to produce the same sentences correctly yourself. If you only know 100 words, however, I’m quite convinced that you wouldn’t have understood anything at all, regardless of how well you know those 100 words. This principle is scalable: knowing 5000 words approximately gives you access to a lot of written or spoken Chinese, but 500 words does not.
The more you understand, the more you will learn
This ties in with the point that a broad vocabulary enables you to learn more. The key concept here is that you will be able to understand a larger part of what you read or hear, and every time you understand something being said or something written, it becomes an opportunity to learn and an automatic way to review that piece of vocabulary (see this related article about listening speed). However, if you don’t understand enough to do that, listening or reading might be next to useless, at least for the purpose of vocabulary. Read more about comprehensible input in this article.
Using a strategy like this, I frequently listen to something being said to me, and even if I’ve never heard it used before, I can still understand it and think to myself “Ah, so that’s how it’s used!” or “Oh, so you can have that as a verb too, cool!” Of course, you could learn these things from listening to your teacher or studying your textbook very carefully, but I consider this to be the wrong approach. You need many words much more than you need to know those words perfectly!
A caveat for advanced students
There comes a point in your Chinese career when it’s time to abandon the strong focus on quantity, but I would say it’s at a fairly advanced level. For instance, when I learn new words in English, I have to study how to use the words and really know them, because these words aren’t words people use every day (or indeed at all). If I don’t learn how to use them when I look them up the first time, it’s likely that I never will.
However, as long as you’re learning words that are in common use (I would say up to 5 000-10 000 or so), you definitely don’t need to focus very much on how to use them. Learn as many as you can instead and then focus on those that turn out to be difficult, useful or interesting. If you expose yourself to the language enough and pay attention, and then practise a lot, you will eventually learn how to use the words you’ve learnt. Build your vocabulary base as broad as possible and feel how the positive effects reach all areas of your Chinese studies!