Adding words I already know to my flashcard list

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.

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Resource Review: Rocket Chinese

A while ago I started learning French, and picked up the Rocket French course (which had gotten some pretty good reviews) to get started.  Around the same time, my girlfriend, who had wanted to learn Chinese for quite some time, bought Rocket Chinese.

I hadn’t seen many useful reviews of Rocket Chinese, so I thought I’d write one up on this blog.  First, two disclaimers:

  • I have signed up as a Rocket Languages affiliate, so if you buy the program through this link, I get a commission.  However, I am going to be completely honest in this review, pointing out the limitations of the program as well as the benefits.  While the commission would be nice, I don’t want you to buy a product that’s not suitable for you (and Rocket Chinese is not suitable for everyone).
  • I haven’t had the chance to compare it with many other Chinese learning programs yet.  I hope to be able to review other programs in time.

Now, on to my review.  This will be quite in-depth – skip to the end if you want the cliff notes version.

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How many Chinese words or characters should I learn per day?

When I first started learning Chinese by self-study in China, I wasn’t sure how many new words I should aim to learn each day.  Before coming to China, I hadn’t been very serious about it, so only did the standard 15 new cards per day from a deck on Anki.  At that time, I had a full-time job and many other commitments, and didn’t have that much time to dedicate to Chinese learning.  I figured that the people who designed Anki probably knew what they were doing, and had a reason for setting 15 as the default number, and 15 seemed manageable without being underachieving.

In China though, I had no job and all the time in the world to learn Chinese.  Still, I worried that cramming too much would be counterproductive because if I tried to learn too many new words a day, my brain wouldn’t be able to handle it and the words wouldn’t sink into my long-term memory.  I settled for about 20-30 new words a day.  This also seemed in line with (and even more ambitious than) the results that turned up when I Googled “how many new Chinese words to learn per day”. Turns out, I greatly underestimated my brain.

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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.

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How important is writing, really? My decision not to learn to write Chinese characters

It wasn’t until I moved to China that I even considered I could ignore the writing side of Chinese.  My initial plan was just to learn Chinese, and that meant all four cores of the language – reading, writing, listening and speaking.  After all, that’s the way it is with most foreign languages.

But then I found out my classmate in Yangshuo wasn’t bothering to learn writing at all.  How can that be? I thought.  How can you learn a language without writing it? Turns out, you can still learn it more or less fine. When living in China, your most important skills by far are listening, speaking and reading.  And in this age in which we live, most people type Chinese (whether it be on the computer or on the phone), and to type Chinese all you need to know is pinyin and recognising the characters.  After all, how often do I even have to write English by hand these days?  Pretty rarely, and usually no more than a few words.  Writing Chinese is so difficult – even native Chinese people, including my Chinese teacher, frequently have to look up how to write some words.

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Why claims that you can read 90% of texts with only a 1,000 character vocabulary are grossly misleading

I remember, when I first started learning Chinese, I’d hear claims that, by only learning 1,000 characters, you can read 90% of things or something similar.  Great, I thought. If I learn 10-15 characters a day, in 3 months I’ll be able to read most things! Nine months later, I knew about 2500+ different characters (according to this nciku test), and I still find it impossible to read a Chinese book or article without consulting a dictionary at length.

First of all, the thing with Chinese is that characters and words are different.  So just because I know the character 格 (, meaning a square grid, among other things) , and the character 外 (wài, meaning outside), does not mean that I’ll know that 格外 (gé wài) means “especially”.  I can read it, in that I can pronounce it, but until I’ve learned the word 格外 in itself, I can’t understand it.  Admittedly, there are lots of words where, if you’ve learned the individual characters, you can guess the meaning of the word (e.g. if I know 火 means fire, and 灾 means disaster, it’s not hard to guess that 火灾 means a fire disaster), but 格外 is far from an anomalous, standalone case.

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