The secret to learning new Chinese vocabulary faster, and with less effort

Despite the rather clickbait-y title, I don’t have anything to sell here.  I just want to share with you what has helped me learn Chinese faster than I would have with pure rote memorisation.

With any language learning, there will be diminishing returns – i.e. the first 1,000 words you learn will probably be less useful than the next 1,000, and the usefulness of words you learn decreases as your level increases.  This is because at lower levels, you’re most likely learning the most useful and common words.  Many people plateau after a while, because why bother to learn more words when the first 1,000 or so seem to allow you to get by fine in many situations?  It doesn’t seem worth it to learn some of the less common words.

Yet Chinese is a rather unique language in that it also offers what I will term “economies of scale”.  This means that as you learn more words, you’ll inevitably encounter new words that are easier to learn because of similarities to characters and words you’ve learnt in the past.  Learning one new character, even if it is an uncommon one, can often unlock several other new characters that you can pick up with minimal effort – “4 for the price of 1”, for example.  This is all thanks to character components, radicals and the intricate links which hold the Chinese language together.  This “economies of scale” effect is not so well-known, as it is (as far as I know) unique to the Chinese language and only becomes significant  after reaching about an intermediate level.  Knowing that it exists however, and how it works, can accelerate your Chinese learning, offset the discouraging “diminishing returns” of language learning and help you break past the plateau.

What are character components and radicals?

Radicals and character components are both parts of a character.  Character components is a broader term though, and includes radicals.  So while all radicals are character components, not all character components are radicals.  Moreover, radicals are very simple, and could be thought of as the basic “building blocks” of characters.  A character component may contain several radicals, and could be broken down further. Some examples may be helpful.

For example, 襄 (xiāng) is a character or word that means “to assist or help”.  It’s rather formal and not commonly used; in fact, I haven’t come across it yet and had to look it up.  However, it’s useful to know in that it’s a component of many other characters, including:

  • 镶 (xiāng) to inlay, edge, border;
  • 瓤 (ráng) the pulp or inside of a fruit or vegetable;
  • 壤 (rǎng) soil or earth; and
  • 嚷 (rǎng) to blurt out or shout.

There are quite a few more but this is enough for now.  Notice how all those characters contain the component “襄” alongside a small additional component on the left or right?  Those small additional components are “radicals”.

The radicals used above were (in order):

  • 钅(jīn) gold
  • 瓜(guā) melon
  • 土 (tǔ) earth
  • 口 (kǒu) mouth

How can these help me learn new characters? 

You’ve probably noticed something about the example above, which is that there is often (but not always) a phonetic similarity to words sharing a character component.  This helps take care of, or at least make easier, one of the three things you have to learn when learning a new word – the pinyin/pronunciation (the other two being meaning and the character itself).  Of course, not all characters will have identical pronunciation even if they share a character component, as evidenced by 镶 (xiāng) above, but at least there’s a similarity.

You may have also noticed that the radical provides a clue as to the character’s meaning.  This is one of the few times that I would recommend downloading a pre-made deck, such as this Anki list of the 100 most common radicals, as learning radicals, even by rote, will pay significant dividends to your Chinese learning in the long run.  It’s not hard to master a list of 100 common radicals, and knowing the radicals well will help you learn new words and keep you from mixing up words sharing a character component.  At a glance, it’s easy to mix up the similar-looking words:

  • 壤 (rǎng) soil or earth; and
  • 嚷 (rǎng) to blurt out or shout.

But once you know that 土 (tǔ) means earth whereas 口 (kǒu) means mouth, it’s unlikely you’ll mix up 壤 and 嚷 ever again.  And once you’ve learned one of the words listed above, it becomes a lot easier to learn its phonetic cousins – especially when it comes to writing – allowing you to make fast progress in building your Chinese vocabulary.

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