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:
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!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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