Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learning Chinese words really fast

After spending three articles building up our toolkit to learn Chinese more efficiently, the time is now ripe to actually use all these to something genuinely useful. It’s time to make those long-term investments pay off. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, learning characters isn’t a serial process, so you shouldn’t wait until you’ve finished the earlier steps before using the method I describe in this article. Here’s what you should have read already:

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Learning words really fast (this article)

This means that you should know why it’s important to know parts of characters as well as the meaning of individual characters. Do you feel ready? Let’s continue and see how this knowledge can be employed to learn faster.

As I have argued elsewhere, remembering things isn’t that difficult if you make use of these strategies:

The power of mnemonics

What I’m going to do now is to explain in more detail and through the use of examples how these principles can be used to learn words very fast. You will need to use some kind of spaced repetition software as well to make sure you remember everything. Using extensive knowledge of character components and individual characters, combined with mnemonics, I have averaged well above one thousand new words a month for long periods. This doesn’t mean you have to learn that much, but you can use the same method to learn fewer words quickly. This is about efficiency (time you spend to learn each character), not about absolute numbers!

The scenario

Let’s say that you want to learn five new words. They can of course be anything, but I’ve chosen some examples that I hope will illustrate the process clearly. The words are:

  • 生病 = to fall ill
  • 默契 = tacit agreement
  • 情操 = sentiment, character
  • 出落 = to blossom (about people)
  • 破坏无遗 (破壞無遺) = to damage beyond repair

Perhaps you know these words already, perhaps not. For most people I’ve met, studying these words is a mechanical learning process where they review the words by reading them to themselves, writing them down or, in rare cases, using them in sentences. I’m going to propose a different method which is a lot more fun and a lot more effective! The best of two worlds, you might say.

The solution, step 1: Learn the parts

It should be obvious by now why you need to know what the characters mean, so I will say no more about it. Note that I don’t indent to include the complete meaning of all the characters, simply the bits I find useful. Learn different meaning for a single character as you go along.

  1. 生病 – 生 “life; to be born, to grow” + 病 “disease; to be ill”
  2. 默契 – 默 “silent” + 契 “contract”
  3. 情操 – 情 “feelings” + 操 “to manage, to operate”
  4. 出落 – 出 “to produce, to exit; out” + 落 “to fall”
  5. 破坏无遗 – 破坏 “to break” + 无遗 “completely, thoroughly, nothing left”

The solution, step 2: Link the parts together

Now it’s time to connect the parts in a way that will make sure you remember them and what they mean together. For more general guidelines about this, please refer to the article about mnemonics (again). Here I will merely give three somewhat different applications:

  1. 生病 – This is a fairly straightforward case, because it’s easy to see the connection between the words. To have “disease” “born” within you is quite obviously the same thing as being ill. To make the picture more vivid, think of the illness as an embryo that enters your body and then slowly grows into an illness. It’s something “born” in you, a “living” creature. If you exaggerate, you can create a fairly scary mnemonic!
  2. 默契 – Still quite direct, but perhaps not obvious. If you’re going to cooperate with someone (such as in a ball game), you need to have a “contract” which dictates who should do what and when. This is not something you can talk about when you’re playing basketball, it needs to be “silent” and based on mutual agreement between the two of you. I have the picture of two people looking at each other, nodding knowingly as if they know a secret we don’t know. In the air above them hangs a signed contract, antique scroll style.
  3. 情操 – Now it starts getting a bit tricky. How can we turn “feelings” and “to operate, to manage” into a good mnemonic? I did it by looking at the various kinds of concepts covered by the word 情操, which appears in words such as “religious sentiment”, “of high moral character” and “feelings of nationalism”.  I think of a grey-haired accountant in a grey suit sitting in an empty office, managing his “feelings” and “sentiments”. He has a certain quantity of “sentiment” and he looks dejected, because he can’t figure out how to foster religious, nationalistic and moral sentiments all at the same time.
  4. 出落 – For this one, I’ve come up with an exaggeration that might also be a bit immodest (the best kind of mnemonic, even though I seldom tell others about them!). The word means “to blossom” as in a young girl becoming a young, beautiful woman. You don’t need too much imagination here to imagine what happens to a woman‘s body as she matures and what “producing” body parts might stand “out” so much that they spill over and “fall”. Do you think you will remember this word next week, even if you don’t review?
  5. 破坏无遗Most idioms are quite easy to remember if you know the characters they consist of. Sometimes, there is a real story behind the idiom that you can learn, but you don’t have to do that. In this case, the connection is obvious. Something or someplace is so “broken” that there is nothing left. 无 and 遗 means “not” and “bequeath”, so there is nothing left to bequeath to anyone. Actually, 无遗 means “nothing left” if used separately as well. This is not enough, however, you need something stronger. I think of an old family mansion on a small island in a beautiful lake. The problem is that the house has been bombed to bits and the child who should have inherited the place stands forlorn, looking at the ruins where “nothing is left”.

The solution step 3: Strengthen or replace weak links

If you do this with words you encounter, it might take you a while to come up with stories like those I’ve described above. This will become easier with practice. In fact, it will be second-nature to you after a while and then you don’t have to worry about it, provided that you know the parts well enough!

However, nobody’s perfect and you will forget some of the words. That’s because the links you created using words and characters you already knew weren’t strong enough. If you find yourself forgetting a word, you need to go back and review your mnemonic. Perhaps you can make it more exaggerated, funny, embarrassing or anything else that will make it easy to remember. Sometimes you have to start from scratch and create an entirely new mnemonic, but that’s okay. Coming up with good mnemonics is a skill that requires practice.


When you become adept at creating mnemonics quickly, you will find that you don’t even have to do it consciously, you simply look at a word, think about how the characters relate to each other and you’re done! Of course, it will take you a while to develop this ability and it doesn’t always go that easy. This skill is useful for learning everything, not only Chinese!

To give you an example, in early 2011, I conducted a small and very unscientific experiment to see how well this method works for learning vocabulary. Naturally, I’ve been using similar methods almost from the start, but I decided to test the limits. Going through the vocabulary list to an advanced level proficiency test, I found there were around 2000 words I didn’t know. It took me little more than three hours a day for five days to go through that list, averaging about 400 words per day, 135 words per hour or just over two words per minute. Using spaced repetition software, I was able to retain about 95% of these words, spending another ten hours over the following weeks. This doesn’t mean that I could use all these words properly, though, and learning words is of course only one part of language learning.

I don’t say all this to boast, I say this because I’m convinced that it’s possible for most people to do this (or something similar) given that you have made the proper preparations. Naturally, building up an extensive knowledge about individual characters and character parts takes quite a long time, but don’t give up, because every singe time you practise, you will get better at it.

Maintaining characters and words

Naturally, learning characters and words isn’t enough, you need to be able to remember them for a long time and access them quickly. The first problem is most easily solved by spaced repetition software (such as Skritter, which is geared towards writing characters) and the second problem by actually using Chinese as much as possible.

Good luck!

She bequeathed her collection of paintings to the National Gallery.

bequeath somebody something

His father bequeathed him a fortune.
2MXto pass knowledge, customs etc to people who come after you or live after you

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  1. Tim Cinel says:


    I’ve been enjoying reading through your brain hacking tips and tricks and would like to say thank you for writing it. While I have been using a lot of the techniques discussed, you’ve certainly made me aware of other approaches.

    Reading through this article I noticed two of your links seem to be broken:
    Integrate what you learn into the web of things you already know (https://www.hackingchinese.com/?p=199) and
    Make sure that the associative bonds are very strong (https://www.hackingchinese.com/?p=175)

    Just thought I should let you know 🙂

    Thanks again! Really appreciate your work.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for pointing this out! This is an unpublished but written article, that’s why the link doesn’t work. I haven’t yet found a smart system to handle links to articles that I’ve written but that haven’t been published yet. Removing the link would probably mean less interconnectivity on the site because I cant’ keep track of a large number articles and links between them. Keeping the link means some confusion and frustration, I’ll look into other ways of handling this, thanks for your input and sorry for the inconvenience!

      1. Heyyyo says:

        Just write what you just wrote there about why you have these links on the page where you’re going to write the new article,and then just replace that text when the time comes to actually write it

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Yes, but assuming I do that regularly, how do I keep track of which bits of text to change once a character goes online?

          WHat I do nowadays is just save a link back to the article in question in a new draft and then, when I publish that, I go through the list of links (which is usually very brief) and add links. Not terribly efficient, but still works.

  2. laurenth says:


    You say:

    ” It took me little more than three hours a day for five days to go through that [2000 word] list, averaging about 400 words per day, 135 words per hour or just over two words per minute.”

    In another post (Memorising dictionaries to boost reading ability), you say:

    ” a couple of years ago I spent roughly one hundred hours spread out over six weeks learning all the characters in the Far East 3000 Chinese Characters Dictionary.”

    The question I’d like to ask is: did you cram the 3000 characters before you crammed these 2000 words? I’d believe so, as I suppose it’s much easier to learn words formed from characters you already know (it does not diminish your achievement though – it’s still awesome). It’s the logical process you expound in the “Powerful toolkit” series. Someone who doesn’t know, say, 2000 (?) or 3000 characters (?) would find it much harder to embark in this.

    Anyway, you inspired me to try to boost my reading ability by memorising at least 500-1000 characters from a frequency list – that’s why I ask.


  3. Olle Linge says:

    @laurenth: You are perfectly correct, I did the 3000 characters project in the winter of 20010 and the massive vocabulary project one year later. It wouldn’t have been harder without the characters, it would have been impossible. 🙂 I’m not sure if I’ve stressed this enough in the articles, but you have to have a solid foundation.

    Of course, it’s a parallel process. I don’t advocate learning 3000 individual characters and then starting to learn words. How you divide the time between individual characters and useful words is quite difficult and I have no solid answer, I just know that you have to focus on the toolkit. The more tools you have, the easier it will become at advanced levels.

    To give you another example, I’m now going through a list of idioms at a pace of roughly 100 new per day. These are all new, meaning that idioms already in my decks aren’t included. This is possible because I can either guess the meaning of the idiom based on the individual characters, or at least I can see the logic once I’ve seen the explanation once. It doesn’t work for all idioms, but still for a vast majority (above 90%). This is just another example where knowing basic stuff well is essential to learn more advanced things.

    So, good luck and keep it up! If you don’t have enough characters, you can learn them on the way. Make sure you remember to add at least one example and include that in the entry for the single character (I didn’t do that in the beginning and that sucks).

  4. laurenth says:

    Thanks for the clarification. According to my Anki deck, I’m supposed to know 1100 unique hanzis (it’s a word deck, not a character deck). My objective is to cram the next 500 hundred, drawn from Patrick Hassel Zein’s list, in 1 month (that’s in addition to my other Chinese-related activities… and the rest: I have a job, a wife and 3 kids, so I can’t devote 4 hours/day to Chinese…). *If* that works, I may try the next 500 hundred and than stop until my knowledge of words catches up with the characters.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It sounds like you have set a reasonable goal for yourself. If you’re busy with other things, make sure to diversify your learning as much as possible. Do you use a smart phone to review? Do you utilise small slots of time during the day to check some tricky words? This is essential if you’re not studying full time. It would be interesting to follow your progress, so please report again later. I think learning an additional 500 individual characters is a really good idea. It will significantly increase your ability to guess words and will make it easier to learn more. Also, you will notice a big difference between knowing 1100 and 1600. The difference between 4100 and 4600 is not that big, so it would be debatable whether that would be worth it or not, but in your case, go for it. Good luck! 🙂

  5. laurenth says:

    Yes I do own a smart phone, which is loaded with Chinese related software (Ankidroid, Pleco, Remata, HanpingChinese, Linghao…) and files (mp3, pdf, txt…), so I can do almost anything I want whenever I have five minutes of free time: commuting, coffee break, lunch, queuing, toilets, whatever.

    For what it’s worth, here is the way I’m working on this project. I have established a list of 510 characters I want to learn (more or less # 1000 – 1500 from P. Zein’s list). I split the list into 30 small csv files called 01.csv, 02.csv, etc. I started on 9/11, so I imported file 09.csv into a very simple, non SRS flashcard program (Remata) and studied it into short-term memory. On 10/11, (1) I loaded file 09.csv into a new Anki deck and reviewed it for the first time and (2) I loaded file 10/11 into Remata and studied it. On 11/11, file 10.csv went into Anki and file 11.csv into Remata, and so on until, I hope, 8/12. I’m curious to see whether I can make it, and what benefits I may reap from this exercise.

  6. Olle Linge says:

    Sounds good. I usually use Anki to go through new words as well, simply because I think it’s easier to handle just one program. If I import large volumes from somewhere (like 1000 idioms or something), I usually suspend all of them and then gradually un-suspend these cards at a pace I feel comfortable with. The end result should be roughly the same as yours, so it’s probably just a matter of preference.

    Let us know how it turns out, I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to know.

  7. laurenth says:


    On the 10th day of my endeavour, I’d like to ask your opinion on two questions:
    1. When you did your character cramming exercise, did you learn ZH-Your language or Your language-ZH. I’ve started ZH-My language but soon thought that I’d rather walk the less easy path of My language-ZH: the vocabulary sticks better and it’s easier to produce the ZH words.
    2. I’ve read that Heisig strongly advises against learning the pronounciation at the same time as the characters. I on the other hand would like to learn the signific as a whole, a bundle of image (character/visual memory/mnemonic), pronounciation (pinyin/acoustic image) and any other information that happens to aggregate (etymology, words built with the character, location of the signific within a broader network of information, etc.). In theory, I find it hard, if not counter-productive, to dissociate meaning and pronounciation. What do you think? I suspect that it’s a rather sensitive subject.
    However, now that I’ve configured my Anki deck to learn My Language – ZH (production of the character and the pronouciation), the fail rate tends to climb steeply…

    1. Olle Linge says:

      1) I’m almost exclusively going Chinese-English on my flashcards. I find it too difficult to separate synonyms or near-synonyms going the other way around. Also, my language learning strategy focuses a lot about being able to understand as much as possible, so I don’t mind expanding my passive vocabulary quite a lot and then gradually turning it active by practising. This might be different for beginners who really need words to express themselves, but I feel that I’ve left that stage quite a long time ago. An interesting question is when and how to switch. I have no clear answer.

      2) I haven’t read enough about Heisig to understand his arguments. Personally and intuitively, his advice sounds really bad and I would strongly recommend people do the opposite and learn characters and pronunciation as one unit. However, this is just my opinion and I have neither anything to back it up with nor the knowledge to be very sure of my opinion. I learn Chinese to be able to use it and I don’t want to do first A then B and only then be able to use what I know, I want to do A and B in parallel and be able to use what I know immediately. What do you perceive as the main arguments for separating characters and pronunciation?

  8. laurenth says:

    On second thought, I’ve just asked myself: What do I want to achieve at this stage of my Chinese learning experience and, in particular, with this exercise. Answer: A “quantum leap” in my *reading* ability. Learning characters should make it easier to learn more words faster to achieve this goal. So what I want is recognizing characters and be able to read them (silently). Conclusion: I’ve just reconfigure my Anki deck to learn characters in a way that resembles a reading situation, ie ZH > My language + pronounciation.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I read thin comment after your first comment, but it seems you’re reached the same conclusion as I did. I think reading ability and listening comprehension are more important than being able to recall all words when speaking and writing, at least from an intermediate level and above. You seem to agree and your decision looks sound.

  9. Laurenth says:

    Update after 1 month. I’m on track (about 700 new characters studied in 4 weeks) – I wouldn’t have thought it was even possible! The HOWTO: I used good tools (Anki + usual dictionaries + Yellowbridge for the components), I followed a rather strict method (systematic use of mnemonics built from components) and planning (a fixed number of characters/day drawn from Hoenig’s “Chinese characters”), I used every possible time slots to review (with Ankidroid on my phone), and I kept focussing on the short term (I know I could not sustain such a pace in the long run, but I can try for, say, 50 days, and be happy if can do it for 30 days).

    On the other hand, I’ve had to leave aside most of my other Chinese-related activities, but I believe it’s a good investment. In fact, when I read some texts, I can already see a huge difference.

    The big caveat is that, if I have swallowed 700 characters – now I will have to digest them. Right now, while reading, I sometimes spot characters that I know I’ve just studied successfully in Anki – but can’t remember its meaning and pronunciation in context. Time and repeated reading should solve this.

    The other caveat is that learning characters is just a step, a tool to be able to learn words, of course.

    I also believe I started this at the right time. I already knew about 1000 characters, which means I was familiar with most components, many phonetic elements and the general structure of Chinese characters.

    Now I think I might as well run for another mile until the symbolic 2000 characters threshold. Then I’ll stop and take the next step, ie read more advanced texts and teach myself lots of useful words, only learning the new characters that appear in new words.

    Olle, thanks for the inspiration to start this.


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for sharing your progress with us! I’m glad to hear that it’s working well for you. I think you have the right attitude as well, because of course knowing lots of characters won’t enable you to read everything in Chinese, you need lots of exposure as well. However, spending a limited amount of time learning characters like this as an important step on the way is good, I think. Not only does it enable you to decipher more difficult texts, it also makes it even easier to learn even more characters and words. I think everything up to 2000-2500 will provide a serious boost, but after that it depends a little bit on what you’re reading (I have around 4200 unique characters in my deck, but some of them I have never seen in context even though I read quite a lot). Are you aiming for a total of 2000, meaning you have 300 left? Would mind reporting again once you’re done? It would also be interesting to hear what you have to say after you’ve had some time reading a bit more and actually start using what you’ve learnt.

  10. Hein says:

    Great tips, thanks! I also use mnemonics to create a story linking all the words I learn in a chapter of a textbook. Each chapter usually has a theme like “weddings”, “recycling” , “moving” etc so I use that as the main theme of my story.

  11. Ben Winters says:

    Something I’ve been wondering about recently is how to keep the meaning of single characters separate from “real words”. Typically I go from English to Pinyin to Chinese and force myself to write down the Chinese character when learning/reviewing vocabulary. Since English is the first thing I see in my deck, knowing whether it refers to an individual character or real word is tricky.

    Actually, I have never tried learning characters in isolation, but I do believe in your holistic and mnemonic approach, so I need to change something about my process. My current level is HSK 4 and I need to double my vocabulary for HSK 5.

    Typically I learn the pronunciation and character together, but I would like to experiment with learning individual characters without the pronunciation. I think this would be faster and it will force me to create mnemonics in English. Perhaps this way I can also keep them separate in my brain from “real words”. Then once I learn another 500 characters in visual form, I can go back to the HSK list and quickly put together words with pronunciation, since the mnemonic building blocks are already there. I’ll be using the Memrise character decks and then report back around the end of April with my progress.

    It’s time to work smarter, not harder! (Well, maybe a little bit harder.)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I haven’t really thought much about this problem, because at least for me it hasn’t been a problem in practice. The main reason probably is that most words are disyllabic in Chinese, so learning words and characters are usually different things. Learning what character goes in what word is of course much harder, but I think that’s best resolved by input rather than focus studying.

  12. tifuh claudia says:

    iam studying chinese
    ni hao

    1. Kyle says:

      ni hao…. I began Chinese a few years ago but was disappointed by my results. If you are struggling in the classroom I suggest you try a program outside of the class like this one:

  13. Anthony says:

    Hi Olle,

    Thanks for the great blog, I just recently found it.
    I have one question relating to this article. When you are creating a mnemonic for a word, how do work out which meanings to use for each of its component characters? For example the word ‘周到’ which means ‘attentive, thoughtful’ contains the characters 周 and 到。 As both of these characters can mean ‘thoughtful’, it kind of makes sense to think of the word as a combination of two characters with this meaning. On the other hand, we could use some of the more usual meanings of the two characters such as ‘cycle, week’ for 周 and ‘towards, until’ for 到 which may create a more memorable mnemonic. I am not sure which method would be better, can you explain how you would tackle this problem?

    One more thing, I have found that I have to write a mnemonic down to make it stick, but it takes longer. Do you write your mnemonics down?

    Thanks for your help,

    1. Tyson says:

      I am not Olle but I think it’s better to use the more unrelated meanings in cases like this. I don’t know whether 周 and 到 can mean thoughtful by themselves but they have meanings such as week and arrive which are useful.

      Something like: When the week arrives at its end, we spend a day being thoughtful – which is why we don’t work on Sundays, just sit around being thoughtful.

      I sometimes put mnemonics into Anki in a new field. You usually don’t have to write the *entire* mnemonic down, just enough to remember… “thoughtful as week arrives at end” is enough.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        I sometimes write mnemonics down. I used to think that it wasn’t necessary, but I’ve found that I take the whole creation task more seriously if I write it down, so I do that most of the time nowadays.

        Regarding 周到, I’ve always thought of it as 周 meaning “all around” or “complete” and 到 meaning that you attend “to” something. The dictionary entry says 面面俱到,沒有疏漏, which is roughly in line with this, thinking of 周 as 面面 and 到 as 俱到.

        I agree with Tyson that you probably shouldn’t use identical mnemonic representations for different characters.

        (P.S. thanks for bumping the comment, Tyson, I had completely forgotten about it)

  14. Lits says:

    May I ask where you store your mnemonics? I’ve recently downloaded Anki and I was wondering if there was a way to write down the mnemonic and be able to easily access it.

  15. Michael Keith says:

    I have Skritter and use Anki as well, but in your article Learning Chinese words really fast you talk about using spaced repetition software. Do I have to create my own Anki deck to be able to take the words I want to learn and have the benefits of SRS, or is there a template out there that I can use to input words. Thanks

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure I understand your question, but just to make things clear, Anki and Skritter are both examples of spaced repetition software. They both space their repetitions based on roughly similar algorithms. Thus, if you’re using these programs, you’re already reaping the benefits of SRS. How you want to input cards is a more complicated question, but not directly related to spaced repetition.

  16. Rhys Lindmark says:

    Two questions:
    1. How do you remember the order of the characters? Associating 糖 (sugar) with 果 (fruit) to get 糖果 (candy) is pretty easy. But I often find that I can’t remember the order. Is it 糖果 or 果糖?My mnemonic is just a visual image in my mind and does have an order. This can also be an issue with remembering identical but switched words like 意愿 and 愿意//合适 and 适合.
    2. In your system, does an individual character usually have only one visual representation? For example, 合 means “fit”. Let’s imagine shoving an extremely fat elephant into a cage an he just barely “fits”. Will you use this same fat elephant to remember 合适,适合,and 合并?

  17. Rhys Lindmark says:

    I lied. I have one more question. Feel free to combine my two posts if that’s possible.

    3. How do you remember characters with more abstract/general/undefined meanings like 然,事, and 物?

  18. Jess says:

    I really like this idea for learning words and will be using it soon!

    One thing I am curious about is how you have your flashcards/anki cards set up for learning new words. Can you give an example on how you have your cards set up?

    Thank you~!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      There are numerous different combinations and the answer to your question is very complicated. In essence, it depends on what you want. You can add single characters, words, phrases or sentences depending on what you’re after. You can also show either English or Chinese on the front page (I did mostly Chinese in the beginning because I wanted to boost understanding) or both.

  19. Janelle says:

    Hi Olle,

    I studied 3 yrs of Cantonese when I was younger and throughout the years I’ve improved by myself. My spoken Cantonese is very good, and reading an entertainment newspaper article is good too. (I might not know a few words only) From watching a lot of dramas, karaoke and reading social network sites in Chinese my reading ability has been getting better. My problem is that when I write I forget the word but If a bunch of words were to be in front of me I would know exactly which word I need to use. So I am constantly using the dictionary to look it up.

    I’m finally trying to improve my written Chinese. I am writing 4- 6 lines of Chinese in my diary entry. Then the words that I had to look up I would use them in another book and make sentences with it. If I do that along with your mnemonics technique do you think it will work?

    I also plan to go through basic Chinese words to improve when I have time as well.

    Thank you!!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What you’re describing is very common and is true for everyone to some extent. I can read many, many more characters than I can write and so can most native speakers as well. There are basically two problems you need to fix: 1) remember which character should go in the word and 2) how to write that character. Natural, communicative writing solves part of both problems, but not everything because there will be many characters you simply never write in your diary. I think it’s best to combine this with some SRS, such as Skritter. You could also start using handwriting to write Chinese on your phone or computer! There is an article in the pipeline about this, so stay tuned. 🙂

  20. Yuri says:

    Hi Olle,

    first of all, many thanks for sharing this amazing blog to all of us! Really. I’ve been reading it over the past few weeks, and I liked it quite much, but when I stumbled upon this post, it really blew my mind! I never though about learning with mnemonics in such a systematic manner.

    Now, I have one question:
    How do you learn a word with multiple meanings (i.e. homonyms, homophones)?

    I’m not interested in Chinese specifically, but I’m asking in general. Note that some words have very different meanings, for instance:

    – “rose”, 1. a flower, 2. past tense of “to rise”
    – “date”, 1. a fruit, 2. a romantic/social appointment
    – red/read (homophones)
    – buy/bye/by (homophones)
    – so on …

    You may know one of the possible meanings perfectly well, but usually others cannot be inferred by retrieving this previous knowledge or by guessing. And, by the way, since some words of this kind have more than one important meaning, one can’t just learn one of them!

    My guess is that one can link each meaning to a specific mnemonic, but I’m afraid that this would cause many interferences each time you read or listen in retrieving the right meaning.

    What do you think? How do you avoid the issue?


    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think I usually don’t bother with mnemonics in these cases if I don’t need to. If I know one usage of the word, I find it pretty easy to extend that knowledge to include another meaning. This is done by actually using the language (including reading and listening, of course). The fact that I already have that word (albeit with another meaning) stored in my brain makes it relatively easy to absorb the new meaning. Thus, my answer here is somewhat theoretical since I don’t actually do this, but incorporating two meanings in the same mnemonic shouldn’t be hard. Picture a rose that rose out of the ground or something?

  21. Felix says:

    I am currently staying in China and thinking about doing HSK 6 in March which gives me roughly 3 months for preparation. I did a mock HSK 5 test and passed without problems but the vocabulary lists seem to include about 2800 words I do not know yet.
    Olle, can you recommend your method of just learning words without context first or should I walk the extra mile and at least look for an example phrase for each word? How many characters per day would you recommend given that I do not need to be done in a mere 5 days like you?

    Thanks to this blog I already know how to fish, that is, I probably know most of the characters that will occur in the course of learning 😉

    Thanks! Keep up the good work!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think it depends on what kind of word it is. It’s fine to learn some nouns and other words that are obvious how to use without context. For other more context-bound words, I strongly suggest using short phrases. Of course, if your goal is to pass a reading or listening test, doing away with the phrases might be possible, but it’s not recommended for learning in general. Regarding how many you should learn per day, that entirely depends on how much time you have and what you want to accomplish. Spread it out evenly with slightly more in the beginning (it will pile up). Don’t drown. Good luck!

  22. Felix says:

    Thank you so much, Olle!
    Being in China will hopefully provide me with the context even if I focus on single words for now.

    One follow-up question: Do you make use of the pictures/mnemonics for each character when coming up with a mnemonic for the whole word? I feel it might help to at least recreate the pictures while learning; on the other hand you definitely do not want to confuse an individual character’s mnemonic with the mnemonic for the whole word, right?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I don’t use mnemonics for everything, I do it on a need-to basis. On the other hand, I’ve used mnemonics a lot and often some kind of picture emerges in my head just by looking at it, provided that I know what the components mean (which is almost always the case nowadays).

  23. Hamson says:

    Hi olle my name is Hamson .
    I am first premdical students at shangdong university ..learning the hanzi was a very diffucuilt for me i often fail several tests and i only pass few with memorise steps .But i usually forget them after the day of tests b,my method of studing is write a hanzi ten and 20 times …still forget
    can you tell me writing is better or using memonics is more better?i get tired of writing and writing HSK4 vocub

  24. Sreeni says:

    Is there any institute in Singapore or online training institute to teach mnemonics technique and guide you to learn 400 Chinese words per day? Or can I take your help for building the technique? Thanks

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not very familiar with educational institutions in Singapore, so I don’t know!

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