The Secret to Remembering Chinese Words
Some people say that German or Russian words are the hardest to remember, just because they can get so darn long. I mean, who wants to sit down and try to memorize a monster like Kugelschreiber when all it means is pen?
But I contend that Chinese words are somehow even trickier, for the opposite reason. They’re so small they can just slip through the cracks in memory.
In this post, I’m going to give you more than just tips and tricks. I’m going to give you a solid foundation in understanding Chinese words–and with that, the highest possible chance that you’ll remember a word after hearing it just once.
The key to remembering Chinese words is understanding them
Let me explain. If you’re the flashcard type, you probably have a system (computer or otherwise) that lets you review individual words in a spaced-repetition way.
That means exposing yourself to the word several times over a period of time, maybe twice on the first day, once on the second day, once on the fourth, the sixth, the tenth, and so on.
This spacing effect really does work extremely well, but transferring that remembered flashcard into real-life language knowledge is a necessary step that doesn’t always happen perfectly.
Even better is if you can become aware of how the Chinese word works–its definition, its connotation, and maybe even its etymology.
The elements of Chinese words
The very first thing you’re exposed to is likely the character – the 字 (zì).
You can use a high-quality online character dictionary like Wiktionary or the Outlier Chinese Dictionary to reveal the character’s structure and etymology.
For instance, this character 字 is a representation of a child under a roof. It originally meant “to nurture, to guard” but its modern definition comes from a gradual change in meaning–from “nurture” to “produce” to “create” to “written character,” roughly.
Learning this history behind the word will not only help you to remember this one word – it will help you learn the logic behind the construction of every Chinese character.
Chinese pronunciation comes next.
Mandarin Chinese has 416 possible syllables multiplied by four possible tones. (Note that there are many syllables which only appear in one tone, and many pronunciations which are extremely rare or absent entirely in speech and writing)
By fully understanding the rules governing Chinese pronunciation–whether you’re learning Mandarin, Cantonese, or another variety –you’ll make it much easier to remember the accurate pronunciation the very first time you hear the word or read the pinyin.
Think about it, if you couldn’t tell the difference between san and shan, you’d be much more likely to confuse the two words because they would fit in the same sound-category in your mind. The same is true of the tones, by the way.
If you’re even a little shaky about recognizing or producing the tones or sounds of Chinese, it’d be a good idea to go review some of the rules of Chinese pronunciation either online or with a tutor.
You need a base in Chinese before you really start picking up words
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut for this particular point.It’s just the facts, the more words you know in a language, the easier it will be for you to learn more of them.
One of the hardest Chinese words for me to remember when I began learning was “taxi stand” or 出租车站 (chūzūchē zhàn). The first time I saw and heard it, it zipped right through my brain and left no trace. It was a meaningless collection of lines and sounds.
I eventually learned it by breaking it down. First I practiced the pronunciation of each character individually – 站, then 车站, then 出租车 (this took a long time), and finally 出租车站.
I always use that back-to-front method for tricky pronunciations, by the way. By starting from the end each time, you practice the end of the word so many times that you can zoom through the word easily once you get past the beginning.
Next I thought hard about the characters. 站 is easy enough as it literally means “to stand,” and we just so happen to use that same word in English for a taxi stand–it’s where the taxis are standing before they drive.
出租车 (taxi) has a noun, 车 (car), as the last character, so I know that it’s a type of car. And 出租 means “to rent.” It’s true, it could mean a rental car, but by this time I had associated the word “taxi” with the Chinese word so many times in looking up all these definitions that I was confident I wouldn’t confuse the meaning.
This breakdown strategy was a perfect forerunner to learning about things that shared concepts with this word. By that I mean stands of any type, cars of any type, and rentals of any type. Every time I came across one of these concepts in the future, I was able to link it back to my breakdown of 出租车站.
Now, they say that you need an emotional connection to a word to really cement it into your mind. Some memory or feeling or image that you can connect to the word in order to understand it just as a native speaker does.
I had that moment in 2016, around 2:30 AM when my train arrived in the Chinese city of Xi’an.
I didn’t have any idea how far I was from my hotel or how I should begin making my way there. And outside the train station the streets were practically desolate. But I knew my vocabulary.
I went up to one of the security guards and asked “出租车站?” He pointed me around a corner where some taxi drivers were hanging out and waiting for late-night travellers to arrive. I couldn’t have asked for a better memory anchor for that particular vocabulary word.
And you don’t even have to go traveling to find ones like it. The best way to get that kind of emotional connection to the words when you’re studying at home is by finding native content that really knocks your socks off.
You want to be watching and reading things that keep you on the edge of your seat. And with Chinese, there’s such an amazing amount of content out there that you really shouldn’t ever bore yourself with things you can’t really get into.
The number one place for finding that kind of stuff is right here on LingQ. So go exploring as soon as you can, and start remembering those Chinese words like never before!
Alex Thomas studied Chinese in college and now can’t stay away. He’s visited China more times than any other country.
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