Why learning vocabulary in Chinese is easy

Why learning vocabulary in Chinese is easy


As a prequel to this article, I’d highly recommend you read my much more detailed article about many other aspects of Chinese: 8,000 words on why Chinese is easier than you think.

In that post, I went into great detail about nonsensical comparisons with European languages, the existence of tones, and how much easier it is to extrapolate the meaning of a new word thanks to its component parts (doesn’t always work, but it’s definitely easier than with many European languages), as well as many other encouraging words for Chinese learners.

Today I want to focus on learning vocabulary. How can you remember these words when they are so different to familiar European ones? Especially when you have to incorporate the tones!

Hopefully my suggestions will help you see how absorbing quite a lot of new vocabulary in this language can be much easier than you thought if you use a little imagination! I’ll also mention a few alternative ways to learn the words to give you some other ideas!

Detailed mnemonic system for remembering pronunciations

First, before I give you some examples of what I did, I think it’s worth pointing you towards a very interesting article I found by someone else:

Mnemonics for pronouncing Chinese characters

This system covers pretty much every possible combination of letters to create an individual syllable that you have in Chinese. It’s quite complex and would require some time to get used to, but you won’t be left without a word that you can create a mnemonic for!

I didn’t use this myself, as I needed something I could apply quicker (no time to get used to an entirely new system first), but if you are taking your time it could be worth learning something similar to author’s suggestion (coming up with your own mnemonics ideally, since the emotional connection will be stronger and easier to remember that way).

It’s interesting to note that such a system would be impossible with many European languages, where syllables are WAY more flexible with many combinations of vowels, diphtongs, pretty much any consonant or vowel starting or ending the syllable, and in many cases combinations of several consonants within the one syllable. If you were to draw up a list of every possible syllable for most European languages, it would be a messy and pointless task.

As well as this, too many words in European languages have too many syllables to make a syllable-by-syllable mnemonic system of any use. In Chinese most words have just one or two characters (syllables), so it can be much more useful to remember them syllable-by-syllable.

[Note: In this post, I don't discuss characters at all; just the sounds via pinyin. Characters will indeed be discussed another day]

My per word mnemonic system

What I did was different though. Because I’ve gotten used to using image association to remember vocabulary in other languages, I attempted it in Chinese and found that it transferred over very well.

I had to make an adjustment for tones that I’ll show you, but because syllables are more straightforward with less complicated and predictable letter combinations, and the words themselves are WAY shorter, Mandarin Chinese is actually easier to learn to remember brand new words.

I really feel that use of mnemonics in some form or other can hugely improve your ability to recall the words. It’s not about filling your head up with random stories, but to use those stories just a couple of times as ‘hooks’. Now, I don’t recall the stories below ever – I just know these words. The stories helped me to peg them into my memory in some way first.

Here is an example:

Why ‘mùbiāo’ means “target”

This is a word I used often enough, because every week I had a particular goal I was aiming for, such as trying to get used to Skype conversations in a different accent. But how to remember it?

It’s just a case of using your imagination! Think about it for a second and see what you could come up with from “moo” (falling tone) then “bee-ow” (first tone – not falling or rising), and see if you can tie that story into the concept of “target”.

Throw any idea out there that comes to mind! It doesn’t matter how silly, nonsensical, politically incorrect, sexual or personal to your tastes it may be. When I first saw it, I gave it a minute and then this story came to me:

I’m walking through a field with a bow and arrow in the early evening as the sun is setting. I want to practise my shooting skills, but don’t see something challenging to aim for. Suddenly a cow falls from the sky! MOOOoooooo [CRASH].

She stumbles to find her ground, and I see my opportunity! Conveniently, a bulls-eye of concentric red and white circles has been pre-painted on her rear, and I position myself by kneeling a little so that the bow is at the same height as the poor cow’s ass.

This is no ordinary bow and arrow though! My arrow is made entirely of bees. I pull it back and launch it into the air – since I positioned myself correctly it flies straight into the target and goes up the cow’s bum! The poor animal forgets itself rather than moo she can’t resist but yelling a loud “OW!!!”

[No animals were harmed in the making of this mnemonic]

The story takes a couple of minutes to write out, but our brains work much faster than that when we don’t need to verbalise it. Basically all I see in this story is [target: mu (falling tone), bee-ow (first tone): target]. The visual aspect of it also helps me remember the tones, and making sure that the actual meaning is ever present allows it to be practical for both recognition AND for production.

It’s essential that I understand it when I hear it as well as being able to produce the word myself at the drop of a hat.

Someone falling wouldn’t actually be yelling in the falling tone (in Chinese it sounds more like a strict “No!” than a NOoooooo) but the point is that in all of my Chinese mnemonics there is either a stagnant/immobile/flat etc. aspect for the first tone, rising of some sort for the second tone, bouncing for the third and falling for the fourth. Neutral is not moving as much as it is in a state of boredom; this is less common though.

Building upon what you know

Sometimes it took me a few minutes of serious thinking to figure out how to come up with a mnemonic for a syllable that didn’t sound like anything, and sometimes the simple fact of trying so hard meant that the rote repetition burnt it into my memory.

This is way less efficient, but since I now DID have an association for the sound thanks to learning a new meaning for it, I could run with it every time in the future!

So, for example, I never came up with a mnemonic for “Diàn”, which is used in many words to indicate “electric”, like computer Diànnǎo (electric brain), telephone Diànhuà (electric speech) etc. Because of this, I just eventually incorporated dian (4th tone) as meaning electric in my mind by getting used to hearing it so much.

Next, I would learn that Diǎn (3rd tone) is o’clock (also dot, point etc.). In this case, I just took the “electric” that I had already remembered and visualised a digital clock bouncing around (3rd tone is down then up when said in isolation) my room to try to wake me up in the morning on the hour. “Dian” doesn’t have any English sound association, but rather an association via another Chinese meaning.

Or when learning the word for “to hurt”, Shānghài, I remembered the name of the city Shànghǎi (which literally means ON the SEA, and on being so common a word you will never forget that it’s a fourth tone), and visualised a bunch of thugs waiting for me at Shanghai airport (which I had passed through briefly and had a frame of reference) with baseball bats. When one of them saw me, he threw the bat straight at me, it hit me right in the head and I fell down, hurt as hell.

This character Shāng comes up in all sorts of similar words like scar, injure, grief, harm etc., and in this case I’d access it easier in my mind because I had the mnemonic of people at Shanghai and a first tone (even if the hai part isn’t there any more).

It’s also important to say these aloud a few times, because Shānghài does sound very different to Shànghǎi. (Same sounds but different meaning is not unique to Chinese. It’s like the difference between “knowing your shit” and “knowing you’re shit”, except way easier to detect ;) )

Memrise for more suggestions

I’ll be mentioning this site again when I discuss learning characters, but memrise.com has plenty of sound association stories to go with the meanings of words, and in many cases, suggestions from the community are given.

Bring it all together with SRS, but especially practice with humans!

Spaced Repetition is an excellent way to make sure that you keep all essential vocab in your head without it simply floating away. I personally wouldn’t recommend using it by itself though, because then you may make no associations and ultimately need a lot of rote repetition (albeit at a very useful frequency) to help you remember.

If I use someone else’s public deck, as soon as I see a new word I try to create a mnemonic in the style described above. This way, when I see it again I can recall it much easier. A couple of times later, I won’t need the association and simply know the meaning instantly.

Generally though, I make my own decks because there are words I am way more likely to say than what generic frequency lists can provide.

The major drawback of SRS is that the context is lacking if you use it for individual words. It’s better to use it in full helpful sentences if you can to give the word more meaning, and generally I’d definitely get into real conversations with people.

Nothing burns a word into your memory like forgetting it in front of a human being and being reminded of it. That emotional impact is much more powerful a tool to remember vocab than you slightly disappointing yourself when looking at a screen!

Some closing words: It’s not as hard as you think!

Many people were absolutely positive that I’d finally give in and “admit” that Chinese is definitely the hardest language in the world, after I announced that I’d be taking it on this year. They were wrong.

I don’t see the point of putting this language up on a pedestal because it’s a human language like any other. People use it to tell jokes, order food, disagree with their boy/girlfriends, watch silly soap operas, read comic books, send text messages and everything else.

When you see Chinese as this Confucian labyrinth of tones and an impossible to understand writing system, used by an alien culture of people who look different to you, then yes, it will indeed be incredibly hard to learn. Self fulfilling prophecies of difficulties do indeed win when you repeat them over to yourself as your personal mantra.

This is never how I saw Chinese. I saw it as a chance to have interesting conversations, to enhance my travels in China by helping me chat to random people on my train journey, learn some Kung Fu, and sit down with people over dinner and just chat casually about whatever. Mandarin was always a means to an end for me; to get to know the people in this part of the world better. [Another video in Mandarin coming up next week BTW]

Being a cry baby about how hard it may be (spoiler alert: every language is hard. Deal with it) is a waste of time. Stop it, and get the hell on with learning the language already!

Hopefully some words of encouragement like in posts like this give you a wee boost to do that! More Chinese specific posts coming up next month, since it is indeed a language I am continuing to learn as part of my current project!

Let me know your thoughts on learning Chinese words in the comments below!

As a prequel to this article, I’d highly recommend you read my much more detailed article about many other aspects of Chinese: 8,000 words on why Chinese is easier than you think. In that post, I went into great detail about nonsensical comparisons with European languages, the existence of tones, and how much easier it […]


  • Janus Bahs Jacquet

    Silly soap operas? In Chinese?

    Surely you jest!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      The silliest.

      • Janus Bahs Jacquet

        (I was being a teeny bit sarcastic)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I’ll discuss what I do for Chinese characters another day. (Heisig’s book may be good for Japanese, but IMO it’s not for Chinese).

    There won’t be a mess though. You get used to it. The point is the mnemonic is only there for a hook for you to remember. When you remember it a few times, you can ditch the mnemonic because you simply know it, and the story doesn’t matter and can be forgotten and won’t mess up other stories you learn from then.

    • French Fred

      Thanks for your answer Benny, that makes sense.

  • http://saporedicina.com/english/ Furio

    It’s good you talk about mnemonics as there are so many people that don’t know about it or don’t think they are useful.

    I think there are no general rules because we are all built in a different way. Someone is really good at listening, others have photographic memory and so on.

    If I really want to remember a character I try to put all together (pronunciation, tone, meaning and shape).

    For pronunciation and tones I use famous people. My code is:

    1) unhappy women for the first tone (ladies first)

    2) happy women for the second tone (raising = happiness, this works for me)

    3) happy men for the third tone (raising again)

    4) unhappy men for the fourth tone.

    So for horse, which you pronounce “ma” and is a third tone, I would think about Michal Jordan riding an horse in the middle of the basket field after winning yet another championship (i.e. he’s happy). Usually I don’t need hints on the shap but you can always find one (a good example for horse is given at memrise dot com)

    Now since modern Chinese words are usually composed by two characters, you can think about two people (one for the first character and one for the second) that perform an action together (the meaning of that given character).

    Of course I don’t use mnemonycs for every new word I get, usually Anki is all I need ; )

    Finally, I agree with what Benny wrote in a previous comment, that is Heisig is not that good for Mandarin. You are learning all these stuff outside a context while Chinese is the most contextual language I’ve ever learned.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Excellent post! I love all the stuff about memory and mnemonics and SRS and whatnot, completely agree! I’ve been messing with that stuff for years, starting long ago with Harry Lorayne’s books when I was in high school, trying to memorize my studies in less time with less effort, of course, haha.

    I really liked the fact that you pointed out that these things, these stories or images you make up in your mind to associate with the word or thing in question that you want to memorize, they have to have some kind of emotional significance, the more the merrier. I’ll never forget what Harry Lorayne said about how to do this in his book: you want things to be as abnormal as possible, you wouldn’t want to memorize the word for “tree” by simply seeing a tree sitting there, looking like it normally would, doing nothing. You want to exaggerate the size and quantity, make it animated as much as possible, make it something that would really stick out if you saw it in real life: you wouldn’t remember seeing a tree as you walked down the sidewalk one day and someone asked you about it when you got home, but if that tree were on fire and talking, you’d never forget it. Make it memorable, make it weird, make it abnormal, make it stick out.

    I also agree that the best way to memorize something is to actually use it while talking to a native speaker! I’ve just been researching this and writing about it recently and I’m getting to the point where I think it might actually be superior to SRS, even if you take into account the amount of time it takes to do it vs. the amount of time it takes to memorize the word by using it with a native speaker (SRS is obviously faster on a per-repetition basis but it requires more repetitions to get the same result)–some people would say SRS is superior because it’s much more efficient but I’m not sure that’s correct, is what I’m trying to say.

    Right now the way I would recommend that people do this is to make a list of words they want to learn that day and then, beforehand, come up with some context in which to use them (write down an outline of what you want to say, not a script) and then get on either Lang-8 or, even better, a skype call with a language exchange partner and then make a point of using those words (obviously on lang-8 you’d be writing something using the words in question instead of speaking them but it still gets reviewed by a native speaker so it essentially meets the criteria)–what do you think of that? Of course, if you’re in a foreign country where the language is spoken then going out and using the words in face-to-face conversations with people is best but most people don’t have that option, that’s why I say skype/language-exchanges are the best option, because for most people they are.


  • Robert Budzul

    Good post

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    I agree with this. Although I don’t think it’s quicker right away, I’m certain that in the long-term it will yield great benefits, since knowing one character leads you to know a host of related characters. I did this for Japanese, and wrote a fairly detailed post as to why you must learn kanji, but the bottom line is that knowing the characters will blow up your vocabulary. Of course, this is very compatible with the mnemonic system that Benny describes, only he is focusing on the sound of the word and a character-based approach focuses on the meaning of the component parts. Personally, I did both in learning Japanese: learning the meaning from the component parts (a la Heisig/Kanji ABC), including a mnemonic, and then a second mnemonic to help remember one of the readings. (There’s usually two ways a character can be read in Japanese, and whenever possible, I selected the one most commonly used).

  • Dave

    This is the dumbest post I have ever read. He learns a few words and thinks he’s fluent.

    Wow are you clueless! It takes years of diligent study to speak Chinese even near properly. This guy speaks EGO not Chinese.

  • Guilherme Alves

    Great post. I’m currently with this problem in chinese. I’ll give it a try and see if the mnemonics work for me.

  • Jacquelyn Chen

    My heritage is Chinese but I grew up speaking, reading and listening to English. I am quite bad at Mandarin, but get this — I realized that I’m not good at it simply because I was never interested in learning anything Chinese! However, when I got older and had friends from Mainland China, I tried to get ‘back into the flow’ because I wanted to communicate with them. My Mandarin improved leaps and bounds. The learning curve was much steeper than the time when I had zero interest and had loads of Chinese material thrown at me. So to those who are learning Mandarin — don’t give up, just get yourself into the rhythm and certainly don’t fret about it. You are already halfway through if your interest in the language and/or culture is high. The Chinese people generally really appreciate non-Chinese trying to learn their language too. Good luck and have a great time! Language learning sure is very rewarding!