When it comes to expressing yourself fluently, especially regarding more difficult topics, knowing specific words can increase your overall ability to communicate. If you don’t know the noun, verb or adjective you are left having to explain each idea; if whoever is listening isn’t great at guessing and deciphering your body language you might be out of luck.
When you are stuck explaining yourself only using the simplest of ideas or concepts it’s pretty hard to convey a sense of mastery or fluency. My 2nd language is Farsi and I can admit, I don’t speak it enough, the problem is my listening is great; however my speaking definitely isn’t.
I can understand everything that people say, but when I want to express myself I’m stuck sounding like a first-grader trying to explain what happened at school to his parents. I might even be guilty of making up words that don’t actually exist. My grandmother, in an attempt to encourage me, has notified me that I sound like – “an uneducated villager”. Wonderful.
I don’t you to sound the same, so I’d like to share my method of learning Mandarin words. Now it might sound like I’m trying to micromanage my language learning. You might think who has a “method” for learning words; I do. If you don’t have a method you’ll be relying on the ol’ say-it-50-times-and-then-you-know-it technique. I’ve done this, it works, but not very well.
Repeating words constantly might help you if it’s an extremely basic word that you will eventually be required to say anyway. However, if it’s a word you don’t regularly use you’ll quickly forget it.
Ok. So here it is, an 6 step process on how I learn any word. I don’t mean to be too self-congratulatory, but this method words.
Before we start, let me remind you. It’s best to approach batches of words that are no greater than 15-20 words. This is somewhat of an arbitrarily selected number, but the point is not being overzealous and tell yourself you’ll learn 100 words.
I wrote about this last time and explained how the human memory works. You can check out that post, but to explain it quickly – the human memory isn’t reliable or accurate. This is why I use Anki. This is why I input every word I learn into Anki. I make decks (groups of cards) not exceeding 75 – 100 words. Smaller decks are better. I once had one with 2500 words and I never saw some of the cards come up.
Here is what I add to all my cards:
Audio of the word (if you want)
You should see the Chinese first, not the definition. You’ll be prompted to decide how well you know the card. Make sure you are honest about this.
NOTE – Make sure you backup your decks! I once lost a deck of over 500 cards and inputting 500 cards back in was not fun. Back them up just like you would any other file.
2. Nciku Dictionary
When we first learn a word, we generally only know one or two ways to use it. Either that or we use our native language to decide its usage. The problem is the usage of most verbs is quite different in Chinese. While other people might understand what we want to say based on the context of your command/question, it’s incredibly easy to revert to English usage while using a Chinese word.
This is especially true for simple commands and statements – put it back, I’ll come back and find you, don’t do that again, etc. etc.
This is why I love looking up all the usages for a new word. When I do this I generally aim to achieve two objectives.
Find what context and situation a word can be used in. You might be surprised by this. I often would look up a word I knew and find out 3-4 other extremely useful methods to use the same word. Boom! Hidden knowledge unlocked.
Subwords. Chinese loves combining multiple concepts together to make one idea. There is a strange logic in Chinese that makes sense in English.
For example – 龍捲風/tornado or if translated by each word – dragon turn wind.
When you look up a word, be sure to check out the subwords. It’s basically the same idea as a compound noun (two concepts together like – backpack). The biggest difference is Chinese is full of them.
Here is an example of what I mean from Nciku.com, one of my favorite online dictionaries.
3. Sample sentences
Now that you are familiar with the multiple contexts a word or subword can be used in, it’s time to make sentences. Take a word you want to learn and make 10 sentences with it. Change all parts of the grammar for each sentence.
If you are learning a verb, change the subject and object for every sentence. Making sample sentences is a fantastic way to internalize any word. Make sure to say the sentences aloud and even write them down if you want. Adding multiple modalities into your word-learning process is going to strengthen it and create much better connections in your brain.
4. Use It or Lose It
Simple enough, right? You have to make a concerted effort to use that word whenever you can. Even if you sound ridiculous, pretentious or downright silly, use the words you learn. This part is more about habit building than anything else. Getting into the habit of actively challenging yourself to use new words and phrases to communicate is an invaluable skill to have.
Once you know how to say something it becomes too easy to become reliant on one singular method of communication. You’ll need to break out of this paradigm and try using the words you learned. Don’t save them as some sort of “backup” word, in case your primary method of communication fails. No, bad idea. Instead, be proactive in using your new words.
You should think of your new vocabulary like an awesome fashion accessory that you can’t wait to wear. Don’t let it just sit in your closet and collect dust while you continuously wear some old pair of sneakers.
5. 10 Words per Language Exchange Session
I pick, write down and study only 10 words per language exchange session. Ten might not seem like much, but it’s a good number for a couple of reasons.
You can get a better understanding when focusing on only a few. Second, I avoid getting off topic. If you are like me, a person who loves to talk, it’s easy to get so off-topic that you don’t even remember what you were initially discussing. Staying focused allows you to discuss one topic and therefore use a word as many times as you can in a shorter period of time.
You can make sentences during this time too. My favorite was to make as many silly, nonsensical sentences as I could, partially out of a need to entertain myself and also to keep the conversation flowing.
Remember, focused practice beats “just chatting” anytime.
6. The Magic Whiteboard of Remembering
Ok, so if none of these methods work. I have a secret method, one that has been used for thousands of years and passed down to me by the secret guild of language-learning wizards since time immemorial. It goes like this:
Take a whiteboard. Write down the words you can never remember or need to know. Put it somewhere very visible. Suggestions include: above the toilet, kitchen fridge, above the doorway on the ceiling directly above your bed.
This method works. At one point I really wanted to learn a list of freshwater fish (naturally, I was trying to impress a group of fishermen). A few weeks of seeing the same 15 fish written in red ink on a small whiteboard marker attached to my fridge did the trick.
So let’s review. When you have a process you can avoid the just-say-a-word-fifty-times method that most of us use. The method I just described above takes a word and uses multiple methods to try to understand its meaning, learn related usage, use it in multiple concepts and incorporate it into sentence making and reading.
Here are the methods again:
Use it or Lose it
10 words per L.E session.
The Magic Whiteboard
That’s it. Hope this has been useful. If so share it with your friends, neighbors and fellow Chinese learners.