Learning Chinese vocabulary

So I’m back in my home town of Vancouver now, on the Pacific coast of Canada. Next week I plan to start on the 6 Week Challenge that I mentioned, in which a bunch of people will try their hardest to learn as much Spanish as we can in 6 weeks. Until then, however, I’ll be working on a variety of other projects, several of which will continue throughout the year. One of those projects is to revive and improve my Chinese.

For those who don’t know already, I should explain my history with Chinese. I decided a while ago that because it’s such an important language group in Vancouver, I should learn a Chinese language. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken here in large numbers (with several areas of the city having more native speakers of Chinese languages than of English). I went back to university to participate in a full-time Mandarin immersion course. After doing that for 4 months, I decided to go to China and continue the program for another 7 months. During this time I learned a lot about how to learn languages (and how not to).

In the last 2 years, I’ve been working much more on European languages, and I’ve mostly neglected my Chinese studies, but I’d like to balance this out a bit. In addition to whatever my focus language may be, I’d like to keep up a steady amount of Chinese work so that I can continue to improve.

At this point, I’m just trying to find interesting ways to challenge myself, and to expose myself to the language. One thing I find really helpful for my motivation is to have several physical books to work from. I grab a bunch of my books, and I sit down at a big table and spread the books out. I pick up whichever book looks interesting, and start reading through. If I get tired of it, several other books are waiting for me, so I can just pick up another one.

Currently I’m working through a book that’s meant for studying vocabulary for an HSK (chinese proficiency) exam. It just has a list of words with examples for each, and then some exercises. In order to have some fun with it, I’m just reading whichever words are interesting. I’m not stressing out about memorizing every single word on the page, just getting some exposure.

One of my favourite vocabulary exercises is to jump from word to word, “surfing” the dictionary. I go to my favourite dictionary site for chinese, nciku.com, and I look up any word that I don’t know. It will then show me example sentences for it, and then inside those example sentences I’ll find further words that I don’t know, and I’ll repeat. In this activity, I can use the words in my HSK study book as starting points, and branch off from there.

This is just one of many low-stress activities that I do from time to time to get some exposure to new words. There’s no grades, no “must learn” items, no pressure. I’m just looking around for interesting new words and investigating them. If you stress yourself too much by trying to go one-by-one in order through the entire book, memorizing each one, then you run the risk of turning it into “work” that you start hating, and then your motivation gets killed. By making it into a task of curiousity and exploration, I make it more interesting and remove stress. It’s something I can keep coming back to, and it’s rewarding.

While I’m doing all of this, I have some news radio on in the background, and from time to time I hear a word in there that’s interesting. It keeps me familiar with the sounds of Chinese, and it offers another casual source of interesting items to investigate.

Once the 6WC starts next week, I plan to do something similar with Spanish to get reacquainted with it. I’m just going to browse around for a bit and look at whatever seems interesting, before I move on to reading real books. By keeping it light and fun, I can review a lot of the words I’ve forgotten without getting too tied up in the task of doing them all in order without skipping anything. It doesn’t matter if I do all of them or if I do them in order, only that I keep exposing myself to the language and keep myself interested in it.

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2 Responses to Learning Chinese vocabulary

  1. “It doesn’t matter if I do all of them or if I do them in order, only that I keep exposing myself to the language and keep myself interested in it.”

    You hit the nail on the head. A lot of people get too caught up in finding the “perfect” method or material, wasting a lot of time that could be used just enjoying, getting used to, and using the language.

  2. Andrew says:

    I’ll definitely be curious to see which materials in Spanish you’re drawn to. Also, you’re absolutely right to try to avoid turning it into work, that is the universal motivation killer right there.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

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