Where to find new Chinese words

A common question people have when learning Chinese is, what words should I learn?  In this post I’ll canvass some of the places where you might pick up new words:

  • Pre-made lists – often these lists will contain, for example, the 500 most common Chinese characters, or the HSK Vocabulary List for your desired level, or a well-known textbook’s vocabulary list.  An advantage is that these lists are pre-made and can easily be downloaded into your flashcard program, and you’re unlikely to learn “useless” uncommon words.  Claims that you can read 90% of a text by knowing only 1,000 characters are often thrown around, but I find those claims to be wildly misleading.  It’s also a decent approach if you’re studying towards the HSK.  But the major drawback to this approach is that you don’t learn words in context: the words are harder to learn because you’re mostly relying on rote memorisation, and it is all too often the case that you might be able to regurgitate the English definition for the word without actually knowing how to use it in a sentence!

  • Textbooks – depending on what textbook you use, this isn’t a bad option.  Textbooks try to include more common words and grammar patterns, they’ll include it in context, there are unlikely to be mistakes, and the dialogues often may include interesting aspects of Chinese culture. If your textbook comes with audio, that’s even better, as the audio is more likely to have clear, standard pronunciation.  If your textbook is popular, it may also have pre-made vocabulary lists on Anki or Pleco that you can download. I haven’t used many textbooks, but found the New Practical Chinese Reader series to be quite good while I was studying at a language school – though it did contain some “useless” words like 人间 (which, 8 months later, I still haven’t used once or seen used outside of the textbook).  The downside to textbooks is that they’re not free, and can be a bit dull.  Also, the things you learn in textbooks will be a bit more formal or written (书面), and you may find after going through several textbooks that you still can’t understand even basic things that people normally say.
  • Signs and menus – if you’re living in China, it’s quite necessary, and you’ll pick up quite a bit of useful vocabulary this way, and it will likely “stick” better because you’ll be using it frequently.  When I first arrived in China, my reading ability was absolutely awful, and I couldn’t read basic signs or menus.  But as I wanted to eat Chinese food, I quickly learned the most common words there so I could order foods I liked.  I also made sure to recognise names of foods I didn’t like, which made any games of restaurant roulette a bit safer.  My strategy was to take photos of restaurant menus using my phone, and look up the words back home in my spare time.  After a while though, you’ll plateau and reach a stage where you can get by fine, but will still have heaps to learn.  Also, you’ll mostly just pick up common nouns and adjectives from this source.
  • Your Chinese friends – some advantages are that the things you learn this way are more likely to “stick” because you’ve learned them in context (perhaps with some discussion), you can ask questions about word usage, you can get more used to normal people talking (assuming your friends are normal), and you might learn something about Chinese culture along the way.  With this method (and any method, really), it’s best to have Pleco handy so you can look up any new words, because often your friend may not know exactly how to explain the word in English.  The downside of this method is that your friends may not be the best judges of what the most useful things are (I was told very early on that “淘汰” was very, very, common.  I’ve encountered it maybe twice over 8 months.  At my level back then, there were many far more useful words I could’ve learned first), and your friend will probably get annoyed if you’re asking them to explain 50 new words a day to you.  Depending on what kind of people you’re friends with, you’re also likely to learn a lot more swear words or dirty words with this method than any other – whether that’s an advantage or disadvantage, I leave you to decide.
  • Television and film – this is my favourite method by far.  Although, instead of watching things on the TV, I play everything on my computer and pause it frequently to pick up new words.  With this method is that you can practise listening at the same time as reading (if there are subtitles), you can watch things that you’re interested in, and you’ll be listening to language that is similar to how normal people speak (well, perhaps a bit more dramatic or witty than normal).  You can also pick up a LOT of new words this way (as many as you can handle, really).  Sometimes there’ll be mistakes in the subtitles, though.  If your level is on the low side, I recommend watching children’s cartoons to begin with – I particularly like 小丸子, which has a lot of common everyday words and expressions.  Some cartoons that are more fantasy-based might have more obscure vocabulary, though if you like these, by all means go ahead.  And even when you’re watching an English TV program, why not try downloading one with Chinese subtitles (if available)?  Watching The Simpsons with Chinese subtitles has helped me learn a few memorable words.
  • Books and articles – this source has pretty much all the same advantages as television and film, but obviously you don’t have the advantage of listening to someone talk at the same time as reading.  Also, written forms tend to be more formal and therefore require a higher level of Chinese.  Children’s books are an option – but I still find a higher level is required for children’s books than for children’s TV programs.  Reading books and articles does, however, have the advantage of increasing your reading speed.  And again, you will pick up a LOT of vocabulary this way.
  • Apps/software – depending on the app, this can be a great way to pick up new words.  It just depends on where the app itself sources its content.  Du Chinese is just like reading (short) articles, but with the advantage of hearing a native speaker talk at the same time.  FluentU is similar to TV and film, but far more user-friendly for beginners.  And apps like Memrise just use the HSK lists, which has all the drawbacks of pre-made lists described above.

So which way is “best”?  Well, depends what you’re trying to accomplish.  If you’re trying to increase your reading speed, there’s no better way than reading books and articles.  If you’re trying to survive in China, then signs, menus, and just everyday life will be enough.  Honestly, other than pre-made lists, which I think are only helpful if you’re studying toward a test, all other ways are great.  The thing is, a multi-pronged approach is needed, and it would be foolish to rely on one source only.  Although if I had to pick just one, then watching TV and films would be my choice – it covers the bases of listening and reading best, and has little downside in my opinion.

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