Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The importance of knowing many words in Chinese

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.

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/austinevan/

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!

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  1. curryisyummy says:

    How do you define learning a vocabulary item? Because I feel like your definition might be different mine and other people’s.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure that it matters in this case? I think knowing many words is important regardless of how you define “word” or “know”. As you can see from the article, I think learning many words (to a lesser depth) is better than learning fewer words (to a greater depth), at least in the beginning.

  2. kim says:

    Wow. Amazing articles. These tips of yours are gold.
    Thank you!! Keep it up the fantastic work ! 🙂

  3. ivan says:

    so could you please give me some websites or tools to improve my chinese vocabs, i can read easy chinese articles on the chinese newspaper but still can’t read the news

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Just read more and look up words that occur frequently (but don’t learn every single new word you encounter). If you have problems finding good things to read, you can try graded readers or bilingual news such as BBC or New York Times.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. I have always liked the idea that you just immerse yourself as much as possible in the language and let the relevant vocabulary surface as you go. But it’s nice to see an article stating the case.
    I’m thinking of refining it down even further to focus specifically on verbs. What do we talk about most, if not what we do?
    I have stated my case at http://thebabelproject.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/the-problem-with-success/
    Keep on Hacking!

  5. Kong Meilin says:

    Do 成语s count as words?
    Some 成语 make little sense even if you know each character. Many 成语 also contain characters you would rarely find in other words but frequently in one or several 成语 which in turn might be used quite freuqently. Some 成语 are used so frequently they should be learnt in the same way as learning high frequency words. I think this is where advanced learners should perhaps focus a lot of systematic effort.

    Apologies if this was already mentioned in the discussion above. I could not immediately see it.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think 成語 can be considered as vocabulary units just like any other words. However, most 成語 are much rarer than teachers seem to think and I personally believe that learning to use lots of 成語 is a waste of time. Understand them? Yes. Learn to use them? Not really. I wrote more about this here.

  6. Jack says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Relating this to English, I know people who have studied English for decades who have lived in the US for a decade who easily get lost due to lack of specific vocabulary. This usually consists of specific types of objects or things.

    For example, they know what a bird is but they don’t know what a robin is. Or they know the 3 most common types of dogs, but not the next 20 most common types. So, when someone says, “I had to put down my malamute,” they are instantly clueless.

    In general, I think your vocabulary needs to be WAY larger than most people think. For Chinese, I’ve found it useful to create (deep) Anki lists of words organized by either type (e.g., dog breeds, spices, birds, etc) or domain (car parts, furniture, etc). This doesn’t mean you learn every obscure type of dog in Chinese, but you learn the 15-20 breeds that come up 98% of the time whenever dogs are discussed. This helped improve my comprehension enormously.

  7. Philip Jones says:

    This is an older post but I liked it so I hope you don’t mind me commenting.
    I completely agree with you that vocabulary is king. I very rarely encounter situations where I can’t understand due to grammar and many where the fault was with lack of vocabulary. For most languages I’ve studied I could master the core grammar in less than a month and so 99% of my actual study time was in learning new vocabulary.

    I also agree with you about quantity over quality when it comes to listening and reading. My one disagreement with this would be when it comes to speaking. I’ve seen lots of language students with relatively large passive vocabularies that can barely say Hello. Taking vocabulary to the level of smooth conversational usage takes a lot more time and effort then just passive understanding. Therefore for the core words that you need to start conversations I would say quality trumps quantity, particularly when just starting out.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It’s perfectly okay to comment on old posts! I wouldn’t have written this article in this way if I rewrote it today, but the general argument is still true, I think. I would say that quality and quality are related to passive and active vocabulary, but they are not the same. I think that having a large, passive vocabulary is often better than having a very small active vocabulary. However, it goes without saying that having a large passive vocabulary AND an active smaller vocabulary is better than either. I think the kind of imbalance that you mention comes from not ever really using the language. I’ve found that the most common words get used so often in conversations that they seldom need to be studied in addition to this. So, I would say that the main problem for students like those you mention is that they don’t use the language (at all?), not how they learn vocabulary in particular, although that’s certainly part of it!

  8. xing says:

    keep up the good work i realy enjoyed reading every word of your piece and would love to read more

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