Though I’ve said earlier that I’ve managed to learn 50 new words per day consistently when studying Chinese full-time, it came with the caveat that this figure included a lot of new words where I already knew the characters. In many cases, when reading (especially in context), I could already guess the meaning of a lot of those words without looking them up in the dictionary. So what’s the point of adding those words to my flashcard deck?
I have quite a few reasons:
- First of all, learning a new word helps me understand the characters better and is useful for “cross-referencing”. An example: in 此刻, “此” means “this” while “刻” means “moment”. So “此刻” means “this moment” or “now”. But although “此” and “这“ both mean “this”, the two characters are used very differently (you could not, for instance, say “此个人“ to mean “this person”. Learning “此刻“, along with other words “此外”, “如此”, “从此” and so on helped me understand “此” a lot better, even though I already had an idea of what the individual characters meant in all those words.
- Secondly, learning a new word improves your listening skills. There are lots of times where I encounter a new word that I can guess the meaning of when it’s written down, but would be quite lost if I had heard it for the first time in the same context. This is thanks to the Chinese language’s plethora of homonyms and near-homonyms, as well as wide variations in regional accents.
A prime example I encountered recently is 授课 (shòu kè, meaning “to give lessons”). I could guess this when seeing it written, as “授” is part of “教授” (jiào shòu, meaning “professor” or “to lecture”), and “课” means “classes”. However, if I had just heard this word, I would the speaker meant the identical-sounding “受课” (shòu kè). After all, 受 (meaning “to receive”) is a lot more commonly used than 授. If I had only heard this then, I would have guessed the meaning to be “to receive classes”, which is exactly the opposite of what it means. Now that I know 授课 is a word and is in my flashcard deck while 受课 is not, I’m unlikely to make that mistake in the future.
- In a similar vein, even though I might have encountered the new word in a context where I could guess its meaning, it’s also quite possible I’ll see it in another context later where I can’t guess its meaning.
- Learning the new word also helps you to eliminate other possible meanings when you hear or see it in the future. When encountering new words in Chinese, I often find that I can guess the meaning of a new word, but I look it up anyway in case it means something different to what I guessed. Nine times out of ten my original guess was correct, but that occasional misfire keeps me doubting my understanding. Adding the new word into your deck reduces the chances of that happening again in the future.
- It’s especially useful to add new words to your deck when they contain some 多音字 (characters with two or more readings). An example is “列为” (liè wéi, meaning “to be classified as”), where the character “为” can be pronounced in two ways – wéi and wèi, which have different meanings also.
- Learning that new word also helps improve my speaking and written vocabulary. While I might be able to guess the meaning of a new word that I haven’t learned yet, it’s much less likely I’ll be able to guess how to say/write a word that I haven’t learned yet.
- The “cost” of adding another word to my flashcard deck is minimal. Because I already know the individual characters, I’ll probably get it right quite a few times in a row and soon I’ll only see that word once every few months or so (thanks to spaced-repetition software!). Adding the new word even has the benefit of making me feel like I’ve learned more (which I have), which is always encouraging!