It pretty much goes without saying that the more Chinese words you “know”, the better your chances of understanding native speakers will be. But, simply trying to memorise lots of random new words is not a great use of time…
Here are three things to consider when deciding what vocabulary to learn and how to learn it:
1. Learn vocabulary you’re likely to come across and use
To do this make sure you…
A) are crystal clear about what types of situations you most want to be able to understand native speakers in. List them out.
- When chatting about movies with my friends
- When haggling about prices at a local market
B) focus on learning vocabulary people actually use in those specific situations.
By doing this, you are not only more likely to commit the new words to memory in the first place — there’s also a good chance that they’ll get reinforced naturally over time since you’ll likely hear them again on a regular basis.
So, whenever you listen to an audio or video clip on a topic that’s interesting/relevant to you, make a point of picking out and studying new vocabulary from it.
2. Learn phrases and sentences, not just individual words
Whether you use a notebook or Spaced Repetition System app to record and review vocabulary, try to make a habit out of not filling it with isolated words… Instead, when you come across a new word you want to learn, note it down exactly as you found it — i.e. as part of a phrase or short sentence. Like this example with the word “do” in the question “What are you doing”?:
New word: gàn (干)
Sentence you heard/saw it in: nǐ zài gàn shén me? (你在干什么?)
What you note down: nǐ zài gàn shén me? (你在干什么?)
Why do it this way?
Because… native speakers think and talk in “chunks” (groups of words). When they speak naturally, they don’t pronounce every individual word clearly.
By learning chunks it’ll be easier for you to process what they say and focus on the actual message instead of getting left behind trying to decode individual words…
3. Pay special attention to sounds and tones
Change sǐ (死) to shǐ (屎) and “death” becomes “feces”… Change “wèn” (问) to “wěn (吻) and “ask” becomes “kiss”…
Having a good grasp of the sounds and tones of Mandarin is not only necessary to make yourself easily understood, it is also crucial for understanding native speakers.
With this in mind, always write down new words and chunks with tone marks and practice pronouncing both the sounds and the tones as accurately as you possibly can. By improving your own pronunciation, you’ll also get better at understanding others’.
But, and it’s a big but, the same word or phrase can sound very different when pronounced by different people — not least due to differences in accent. To improve your chances of “effortlessly” recognising words when you hear them spoken in the real world you need to practise listening to a variety of speakers (not just the one or two included in your textbook audio recordings…).
Summary #6: “Learn the Right Vocabulary, the Right Way”
- Be clear about what types of situations you most want to be able to understand native speakers in and learn vocabulary people use in those specific situations.
- Learn new words in “chunks” (i.e. as part of a phrase) rather than in isolation.
- Always write down new words and phrases with tone marks. Practice pronouncing both the sounds and the tones as accurately as you possibly can.